A Machine for Preventing Civil War

 

Scott Alexander, in a 2017 post at Slate Star Codex:

People talk about “liberalism” as if it’s just another word for capitalism, or libertarianism, or vague center-left-Democratic Clintonism. Liberalism is none of these things. Liberalism is a technology for preventing civil war. It was forged in the fires of Hell – the horrors of the endless seventeenth century religious wars. For a hundred years, Europe tore itself apart in some of the most brutal ways imaginable – until finally, from the burning wreckage, we drew forth this amazing piece of alien machinery. A machine that, when tuned just right, let people live together peacefully without doing the “kill people for being Protestant” thing. Popular historical strategies for dealing with differences have included: brutally enforced conformity, brutally efficient genocide, and making sure to keep the alien machine tuned really really carefully.

Very insightful and correct, I believe, if by liberalism one means free speech, freedom of religion, and limited government, rather than the cluster of ‘progressive’ believe that often fly under the ‘liberalism’ brand today.

And when the above attributes of a society do not exist or are eroded, then live-and-let-live becomes difficult to impossible, and all questions become politicized, because political outcomes determine everything.

When the government controls everything, there is no constructive relief valve for all this pent-up tension.  It all boils down to a “historic” election once every couple of years, upon whose outcome everything depends.  They’re all going to be “historic” elections from now on. That’s not a good thing.

Ultimately, the game of politics becomes like those Aztec ball games in which the losers are said to have been sacrificed.  Indeed, some of this is happening in America already today, with Democrats demanding that Trump and his supporters be pursued post-election in almost every possible way.

If the machine of liberalism (as defined above) is destroyed, then another kind of machine will quickly take its place…the machine described by Jean Anouilh in his version of Antigone:

The spring is wound up tight. It will uncoil of itself. That is what is so convenient in tragedy. The least little turn of the wrist will do the job . . . The rest is automatic. You don’t need to lift a finger. The machine is in perfect order; it has been oiled ever since time began, and it runs without friction

And attempts to create a utopian society…a heaven-on-earth..lead to the destruction of the civil-war-preventing machine and the activation of Anouilh’s machine of tragedy.  As the Ornery Dragon says in above-linked post:

Why on earth would you want the government to be in charge of bringing about heaven on Earth? And, who’s heaven are you trying to create, anyway? The heaven where martyred jihadists get 72 virgins? Who you picking for the role of virgin? Are you Baptist? Do you want their heaven? Do you want Mark Twain’s where he’s rumored to have said “Heaven for the climate, hell for the society?” What exactly are you expecting to happen when you set out to create heaven on earth? And why do you believe that everybody will agree on which version of heaven will be created?

Some people will, inevitably, dislike the version of Heaven being promoted by other people, and will resist being assimilated into that particular Heaven with all their might.

(An earlier version of this post was published at Chicago Boyz)

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  1. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    Amen

    • #1
  2. jmelvin Member
    jmelvin
    @jmelvin

    Great post.

    • #2
  3. Mark Alexander Coolidge
    Mark Alexander
    @MarkAlexander

    Nailed it!

     

    • #3
  4. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    David Foster: Why on earth would you want the government to be in charge of bringing about heaven on Earth? And, who’s heaven are you trying to create, anyway?

    That is really the crux of the matter. Over and over and over again.

    • #4
  5. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Arahant (View Comment):

    David Foster: Why on earth would you want the government to be in charge of bringing about heaven on Earth? And, who’s heaven are you trying to create, anyway?

    That is really the crux of the matter. Over and over and over again.

    That reminds me, I never did finish watching Alexei German’s final film, Hard to Be a God (Трудно быть богом).

    • #5
  6. Guruforhire Member
    Guruforhire
    @Guruforhire

    I think that liberalism if taken to extremes just produces an equally bad problem of universal alienation because we have created a country for nobody.

    • #6
  7. Henry Castaigne Member
    Henry Castaigne
    @HenryCastaigne

    Guruforhire (View Comment):

    I think that liberalism if taken to extremes just produces an equally bad problem of universal alienation because we have created a country for nobody.

    I think that’s more Randian libertarianism. Classical liberals can still like the Fourth of July and aren’t offended by Christmas songs that mention Jesus.

    • #7
  8. David Foster Member
    David Foster
    @DavidFoster

    Scott Alexander doesn’t really explain why he calls it an *alien* machine….probably, I’d guess, the idea is that it’s not something that comes naturally to people.

    • #8
  9. Ammo.com Member
    Ammo.com
    @ammodotcom

    Henry Castaigne (View Comment):

    Guruforhire (View Comment):

    I think that liberalism if taken to extremes just produces an equally bad problem of universal alienation because we have created a country for nobody.

    I think that’s more Randian libertarianism. Classical liberals can still like the Fourth of July and aren’t offended by Christmas songs that mention Jesus.

    It’s just odd that you can take a sensible approach to things and still vote for the same husk as green-haired scream-goblins.

    • #9
  10. Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio… Member
    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio…
    @ArizonaPatriot

    I’m quite skeptical of this claim.  When, precisely, was this wonderful mechanism of “liberalism” supposedly adopted?  The Peace of Westphalia?

    There were plenty of civil wars and revolutions since then.  Remember that a revolution, generally speaking, is a civil war in which the old regime loses.

    France had the Revolution, then the coup of the Napoleonic Empire, then a restoration of the monarchy, then the Second Republic, then the Second Empire, then the Third Republic.  There was a fair amount of violence involved.

    Germany was fragmented after the Thirty Years War, but had plenty of internal conflict, though often between sub-states.  There were failed revolutions in 1848, the war between Austria and Prussia (circa 1866), the Anschluss in the late 1930s.

    Britain had long-standing civil war, with the Irish.  Also, the American Revolution was a civil war inside the British Empire.

    The US had a civil war, too.

    • #10
  11. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio… (View Comment):

    I’m quite skeptical of this claim.  When, precisely, was this wonderful mechanism of “liberalism” supposedly adopted?  The Peace of Westphalia?

    There were plenty of civil wars and revolutions since then.  Remember that a revolution, generally speaking, is a civil war in which the old regime loses.

    I wasn’t around at the time to be able to speak from first-hand knowledge, but I am told that the religious wars of the late 1500s and especially the early 1600s were especially brutal and traumatic for Europe.  Sure, there were plenty of wars and revolutions since the Peace of Westphalia, but somehow they didn’t have the same kind of traumatic effect until World War I, which perhaps had a similar effect on the psyche of western Europe. I’m not knowledgeable enough to hold up an argument against someone who would want to contest that view, but this gives you an idea of the kind of argument you would need to wage.

    • #11
  12. Gumby Mark (R-Meth Lab of Democracy) Thatcher
    Gumby Mark (R-Meth Lab of Democracy)
    @GumbyMark

    I think what Scott is driving at in the American context is that we can only survive with some element of “neutral processes” where government and society are not zero-sum and where every election is not an existential crisis for the losing side.  It is a society, as George Washington wrote, based on tolerance being something we owe to each other and not as something bestowed.  It is imperfect but the best way to keep us from killing each other in the streets.

    Our Civil War occurred when several states saw the election of Lincoln as an existential crisis threatening the institution of slavery upon which the societies of those states were based.

    However, what Scott misses, at least in the excerpt quoted above, is neutral processes can’t succeed if based on no common foundation.  In the case of America, those foundations are religious, nationalistic and embrace the creed of the preamble of the Declaration.  By removing those foundations (and I say this as someone not observantly religious myself) during the latter part of the 20th century, and even more quickly in this century, we have inadvertently collapsed the basis for belief in neutral processes and opened up the way for a new faith that has emerged recently, Critical Race Theory, which rejects the entire idea of neutral processes and is removing the Declaration as a creedal expression from American history.  You are either a member of the New Faith (anti-racist) or a heretic.

    • #12