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Skewering Liberalism – an intriguing voice from the past

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TRUST in our institutions has plummeted. The supposed unity of ‘the public’ has fractured as loyalty to ‘identity’ groups replaces civic and national allegiance. Genuine opposition (where it exists) is harried, popular demonstrations suppressed, all in the name of ‘the rule of law’. Elites openly scorn the middle and working classes; their activist proxies stoke a degrading climate of self-censorship.  

It wasn’t meant to be like this. The Western Liberal tradition was founded on sacred concepts, seeded in 17th-century England before blooming in the Enlightenment. The social contract, the sovereignty of the people, the ‘public good’ – these things ensured its continued hegemony. When the Soviet Union collapsed, we complacently proclaimed the ‘end of history’. 

Processing our present malaise, some invoke cycles of civilisational decline, others the predations of globalism and demographic change, or the corrosive effects of material comfort and secularisation. Each case has its strengths. Rarely, however, are the lavish claims of Western Liberalism itself interrogated. But what if our predicament isn’t despite our vaunted political model but because of it? What if Liberalism was always doomed to implode?

Karl Ludwig von Haller (1768–1854), a Swiss jurist, statesman and political philosopher, posed these paradigm-shifting questions. His Restoration of Political Science (Vol. 1) has just been published by Imperium Press, translated (for the first time into English) and with a fine introduction by Jack Vien. Haller skilfully skewers the assertions of early Liberal proselytes such as Voltaire and Rousseau. And he posits an alternative political theory stirring interest among today’s dissident right: patrimonialism.           

A key Counter-Enlightenment text, Restoration argues for the artificiality of the Liberal State. Far from being the ‘Natural Rights of Man’, political authority derives from property ownership. States were originally formed, Haller contends, through superior men, natural aristocrats, acquiring resources and thereby attracting followers who freely submitted to their authority. In time, they became sovereign princes; but their power remained personal, emanating organically from networks of inter-dependency and patronage, with their own household as the model.         

On this view, the Liberal State, abstractly contrived by technocrats, has been superimposed on pre-existing social systems. Moreover, equality of political rights, enshrined in ‘popular sovereignty’, eventually morphs into equality of property rights; the redistribution of resources becomes necessary to keep the ‘Democracy’ show on the road. Hence the drift towards collectivism and nationalisation in the Liberal State is internally coherent, not an aberration.

Society doesn’t comprise ‘equal’ people; nor can or should we be made equal. We all have different talents. Being social animals, this is desirable, since it nurtures ties of mutual kindness and gratitude. If it weren’t for inequality, we wouldn’t need each other like we do. In real life, such beneficial bonds manifest all the time, from large organisations with many employees to the family unit. At root, these are variations on the natural condition of lordship and dependence. In this sense, says Haller, ‘there’s always a state’. Yet the Liberal State, with its vast administrative machinery, and devoid of any personal charisma, arrogates all legitimacy to itself, recognising only one political relation: we command, you obey.    

What of the rise of the despot in a patrimonial system? For Haller, it’s by no means inevitable, as Liberal propagandists would have it. First, princely self-interest militates against it: the men he rules over outnumber him; they could turn against him at any moment. But more than that, a strong leader exercising noblesse oblige has no wish to breach the reciprocal contracts he has with his subjects. Those who do so only betray their weakness and lack of personal superiority.     

Haller’s penetrating critique of Liberalism and remedy of patrimonialism makes for challenging reading; to credit it, one must cast off long-cherished beliefs. His antidote is questionable: even if we wanted to, how would we recover a feudal sense of personal power? Yet many readers will find this book revelatory, and even on the level of literary exercise it will stimulate healthy debate. In recent years, we’ve come to realise we’ve been sold many lies. Is ‘Our Democracy’ the biggest of them all?

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Stuart Major
Stuart Major
Stuart Major is an independent scholar based in Sussex.

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