The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies,
By Ryszard Legutko
Reviewed by Marek Jan Chodakiewicz
Ryszard Legutko is Poland’s leading libertarian and conservative intellectual and a student of philosophy. His The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies, (transl. Teresa Adelson (New York and London: Encounter Books, 2016) describes the degeneration of liberalism into totalitarianism.
An existential crisis looms large over Western Civilization. Like most conservatives, Legutko blames ideology for the current state of affairs. According to The Demon in Democracy, “Ideology is a mental structure that allows a combination of conflicting traits – an extreme distrust of ideas and a blind dogmatism” (p. 116). In particular, the author focuses on the uncanny similarities between communism and liberalism. “The overwhelming presence of ideology in liberal-democratic and communist societies can be easily explained. The main cause is equality, in which both regimes gave a status of the highest value and made a regulating principle. Both systems enforced the liquidation – through revolutionary means in communism, evolutionary in liberal democracy – of social hierarchies, customs, traditions, and practices that had existed prior to the emergence of the new political systems” (p. 132).
Not surprisingly, Legutko is interested most in the Old Continent. He posits that “The European Union reflects the order and the spirit of liberal democracy in its most degenerate version” (p. 87). It seeks “to construct a federal super-state, to create a European demos and a new European man. They are extraordinarily self-confident and arrogant and have no particular respect for the heritage they do not know and do not intend to learn about. They are bureaucrats and apparatchiks rather than visionaries and statesmen. They were not shaped by the European culture of which they have limited knowledge and toward which they do not bear warm feelings” (p. 86-87).
In this context, for example, artists, supposed to be models of creativity and independence, have come close to being a herd of mediocrities indistinguishable from one another, whose minds have been sterilized of all that is new, revealing, and unexpected” (p. 125). So much for the so-called elites.
Legutko sees the existential threat as deriving at the moment principally from liberalism, which he believes, as many Catholic conservatives do, to derive from Protestantism, in particular the Protestant Revolution of the 16th century (p. 151). However, the author also views communism as liberalism’s evil twin.
As an old saw would have it, communists are liberals in a hurry. But on their side, consciously or not, the liberals also do their bit to usher in a totalitarian utopia. It has now entered an antinomian individualistic stage of the moment. Yet, since panta rei, there may be more surprising as the current European system morphs into a collectivistic tyranny, or ‘a tyranny of the majority” (p. 89). According to the author, “egalitarianism and despotism do not exclude each other, but usually, go hand in hand. To a certain degree, equality invites despotism because to make all members of society equal, and then to maintain this equality for a long time, it is necessary to equip the controlling institutions with exceptional power so they can stamp out any potential threat to equality in every sector of society and any aspect of human life… Some call it a paradox of equality: the more equality one wants to introduce, the more power one must have; the more power one has, the more one violates the principle of equality; the more one violates the principle of equality, the more one is in a position to make the world egalitarian” (p. 133).
As for the people under liberal democracy, generally, they shy away from excellence. They embrace mediocrity instead. “To a mediocre man, an organic assimilation with the system was the easiest way to develop a conviction of being exceptional” (p. 180).
Further, the people tend to be helpless products of enforced ideological uniformity that ideologically expresses itself best, perhaps, as “multiculturalism.” Legutko corrects the word as “mono-polit” (p. 96), a total political construct. “Many ingredients of the multicultural cake are not ingredients anymore but have become the cake itself. Feminism is not the ‘culture’ of feminists or feminist parties or women, but the political platform espoused by governments, the European Union, and many international institutions; the ideology of homosexuality is no longer in the hands of homosexual activists and their organizations but is a major item in national and global agendas… The acquisition of all these catchphrases by the mainstream resulted in – paradoxically – a further homogenization of the modern world, all the more effectively executed because concealed behind the shamelessly fraudulent rhetoric of cultural diversity… Never before in human history did we see a similar phenomenon when millions of people, indistinguishable from each other, using the same patterns of thinking, politically homogeneous and oblivious to any other way of viewing the political world except according to the orthodox liberal-democratic version, are not only convinced of their own individual and group differences and proclaim the unchallenged superiority of pluralism but also want to enforce the same simplistic and tediously predictable orthodoxy on the entire world as the ultimate embodiment of the idea of multiplicity” (p. 96).
Compliance is enforced through the terror of political correctness: it is not a bloody terror, but non-conformity will cost one his job and civic death. So most keep silent. For example, “To be able to give a fairly accurate description of reality, one has to be somehow detached from it, and it is precisely this condition that the ideology invalidates by transforming the majority of people, whether they agreed or not, into participants in the war it itself created. Practically everyone felt coerced to take the right side and reassert his partisanship by surrendering to all the necessary language rituals without any critical thought or disarming doubt… Today, when someone is accused of homophobia, the mere fact of accusation allows no effective reply. To defend oneself by saying that homosexual and heterosexual unions are not equal, even if supported by most persuasive arguments, only confirms the charge of homophobia because the charge itself is never a matter of discussion. The only way out for the defendant is to submit to self-criticism, which may or may not be accepted. When the poor daredevil is adamant and imprudently answers back, a furious pack of enraged lumpen-intellectuals inevitably trample the careless polemicist into the ground” (p. 129).
This is precisely the same terror mechanism that was obtained under the Communist dictatorship, sans the actual physical extermination, at least for now. “Prudent people – both then and now – anticipate such reactions and made a preemptive move before saying anything reckless. Under communism, the best tactic was to start by condemning the forces of reaction and praising socialist progress; then, one could risk smuggling in a reasonable, though somewhat audacious statement, preferably wrapped in quotations from Marx and Lenin. In a liberal democracy, it is best to start with a condemnation of homophobia followed by the praise of the homosexual movement, and only then sheepishly include something commonsensical, but only using the rhetoric of tolerance, human rights, and the documents issued by the European Parliament and the European Court of Justice. Otherwise, one invites trouble” (p. 130).
By Legutko’s telling, liberal democracy embraces minimum anthropology, which entails mediocrity expressed as equality. “Modern man who was the inspiring force of the two political systems [communism and liberalism] was a mediocrity, not by nature, but, so to speak, by design, and from the beginning was expected to be indifferent to great moral challenges and unaware of the danger of moral fall” (p. 177).
A fusion took place, or convergence, if you will, of liberalism and communism, which shared an identical telos: progress. “A similar assumption guided liberal democrats as the communists before them: both disliked communities for their alleged anachronism and, for that reason, thought them, because deep-rooted, to be the major obstacles to progress” (p. 92).
Like communism, liberalism leaves no sphere of human endeavor untouched. Take religion, for example: “the growing infiltration of liberal democracy into religion. Liberal democracy, like socialism, has an overwhelming tendency to politicize and ideologize social lie in all its aspects, including those that were once considered private; hence, it is difficult for religion to find a place in a society where it would be free from the pressure from liberal democratic orthodoxy and where it would not risk a conflict with its commissars” (p. 166). It is all about an insatiable lust for power, you see, cautions Legutko.
To illustrate arguably the most nefarious aspect of the synergistic partnership, it would be helpful to stress Michel Foucalt’s theory on the relativism of power. Whoever controls the summit of power tends to oppress the others. Yet, the process of the exercise of power and its nature remains constant: hence not only an ideological but also functional compatibility of communism and liberalism, as James Burnham has argued.
Legutko stresses that nothing mobilizes like a common adversary, though. “Both sides – communist and liberal-democratic – share their dislike sometimes bordering on hatred, toward the same enemies: the Church and religion, the nation, classical metaphysics, moral conservatism, and the family” (p. 138).
Liberalism assaults the Faith in particular: “This notion that to be for freedom and modernity presumes being also anti-Christian has imprinted itself on the European mind and is as strong today as it was in the past. Anti-Christian rhetoric in the media and politics and anti-Christian art, including paintings, installations, plays, novels, films, articles, and slogans, fills the public space today, making the Christian religion, its institutions, and its articles of faith objects of endlessly multiplying derisions and accusations. Homosexual activists see Christianity as the source of homophobia and feminists as the foundation of patriarchy. Countless intellectuals accuse it of totalitarianism, reactionary sexual ethics, pedophilia, an Inquisition-like mentality, witch-hunts, anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, intellectual infantilism, a morbid fascination with guilt, and numerous other sins… The crusade against Christianity verges on the absurd: liberals continue to make new conquests and to colonize more and more areas of human life, leaving practically no territory outside their control, and the more they grab, the louder they rant against Christianity, flogging it with new accusations, invectives, and blasphemies” (p. 159). This is precisely what the communists did, too.
Both liberalism and communism view progress as a historical inevitability. Both regard everything in the universe as political. The latter is a paradox. “The logic of liberalism is that whatever seems to be the most nonpolitical, sooner or later will become political. The logic of democracy – with its notions of participation, inclusion, and representation – only strengthened this tendency. The language was the first to go down this road: initially thought of as potentially descriptive and neutral, it soon came to be seen as the major political weapon used by the oppressors against the oppressed… But at the beginning, at the very top, is the thought with which it all began – a thought-crime, a mental sin that constitutes the first act of disobedience to holy political principles. Whoever seeks the remedy must start with the political therapy of people’s minds” (p. 101).
Liberalism liberated people from politics to let them enjoy the private. But some people used liberal democracy to elevate the private to public and, hence, political (p. 105). For example, this is nowhere more evident than in the sphere of sexuality which dominates our public discourse.
At the current stage, liberalism reduces itself to a system of instant “gratification” (p. 108), or what I prefer to call a dictatorship of pleasure. “The sexual revolution is arguably the most extreme manifestation of the episodic nature of man. To surrender one’s life to sexual pleasures meant once and for all abandoning any attempt to give one’s existence a unifying meaning; this pleasure is, like no other, related to what is short-lived and ephemeral” (p. 109).
Work, entertainment, and consumerism, and sex become manifestations of liberalism or, instead, it’s utilitarian imperative that leads it to socialism and, hence, to the utopianism of egalitarianism fulfilled (pp. 107-108). But at this stage, liberalism clashes with an internal contradiction. Liberalism is supposed to stand for freedom; instead, it has embraced egalitarianism. The latter hates freedom and diversity. Its nature requires it to smash any manifestations of non-mediocrity.
What will happen to democracy under such circumstances? Persecution of non-conformists will never end. Indeed, it will accelerate with the witch hunts against the exceptional while broadening the definition of the enemy ad infinitum. “The spirit of suspicion will not disappear because there are always newer areas to conquer and deeper sources of inequality to discover””(p. 136). Who is the suspect? Virtually everyone.
This mechanism operates through a clash between ideological constructs and real-life phenomena. “Just as the ‘proletariat,’ ‘women’ is an abstract concept that does not denote any actual existing community, but only an imagined collective made an object of political worship among feminist organizations and their allies. But the paradox is that this feminist woman, being a figment of political imagination, is considered by the feminists to be a proper woman, a woman in a strict sense, the truest woman, just as for the communists, the Marxist proletariat was the truest representative of the working class. By the same token, a real woman living in a real society, like a real worker living in a real society, is politically not to be trusted because she deviates too much from the political model. In fact, a non-feminist woman is not a woman at all, just as a noncommunist worker was not really a proletarian” (p. 94).
Paradoxically, the defeat of the USSR and Communism and the end of the Cold War, which Legutko believes came about in no small measure because of the might of the United States, strengthened liberalism. It now could pretend it was the only product on the market, a fiction reinforced by sexy theories about “the end of history” of the likes of Francis Fukuyama (pp. 139-140).
Both Faith and nationalism are anathemas to liberalism. However, history shows that “Poland’s Solidarity movement would not have been possible without its members’ strong patriotic and religious motivations” (p. 143). Yet, even the Poles succumbed. “To have freedom meant for the Poles not to have a government that would subject these [traditional] institutions, laws, norms, and social mores to thoughtless social engineering. But this is precisely what happened when the communist regime was replaced by the liberal-democratic one” (p. 143).
Liberalism (like communism) is here to stay, at least for a while. “The real change will come only when the current view of man spends itself and is considered inadequate” (p. 181). And then?