The nonsense of Rousseau, the Islamists, and totalitarian democracy

Instapundit links to a Forbes article that argues this administration’s dismissive approach towards the other co-equal branches of government smells a little totalitarian and says “I think it’s more that he’d like to be a lot closer than he is, and we’ve seen that some of his supporters would like that too. Nice to be clear where people stand, anyway.”  Sounds about right to me.

Andrew McCarthy gives the subject a more in-depth treatment in Future tense, VIII: Enter totalitarian democracy.  Good stuff.  Longer excerpt below the jump, here’s the conclusion:

For the framers, government was a necessary evil. It was required for a free people’s collective security but, if insufficiently checked, it was guaranteed to devour liberty. The purpose of the Constitution was not to make the positive case for government. The case for government is the case for submission—submission to, as Talmon put it, the “sole and exclusive truth,” the progressives’ “absolute collective purpose,” their “proper conditions” for making men not what they are but what “they were meant to be.”

In stark contrast, the Constitution is the positive case for freedom—real freedom, not freedom in the sense (actually, the nonsense) of Rousseau, the Islamists, and totalitarian democracy, in which the individual complies because a coercive environment leaves him with no other options…

We are in an age of upheaval, and what becomes of our law will go a long way toward determining how it ends. In a free society such as ours, grounded in a culture of ordered liberty, law should not be a didactic force. It undergirds economic and social life as it is already lived, reflecting the society’s values rather than instructing the society on what to think and how to live. But today’s progressive legal elites would have it another way. To them, the “rule of law” is code for a “social justice” crusade in which the courts, government bureaucracies, and international tribunals replace democratic self-determination with their sole and exclusive truth. If the progressives get their way, upheaval will not yield utopia. It will yield totalitarianism.

Future tense, VIII: Enter totalitarian democracy

by Andrew C. McCarthy
On the difficulties of making law in the modern world.

What has actually gone on since the end of World War II is the rise of “totalitarian democracy,” to borrow the lapidary descriptor of the political scientist Jacob Leib Talmon. This is a form of “political Messianism” (another Talmon coinage) that must be distinguished from quaint old liberal democracy. Indeed, while the burden of this essay is to consider the place of the rule of law in an age of upheaval, it would be as apt to speak of the role of law. For what we will experience as “law” will be very different depending on which variety of democracy remains when the upheaval’s dust has settled.

The totalitarian democratic school, Talmon instructed, “is based upon the assumption of a sole and exclusive truth in politics.” Liberal democracy, by contrast, “assumes politics to be a matter of trial and error.” It takes human beings as basically good but incorrigibly fallible, and sees their political systems as just another pragmatic contrivance in lives that for the most part are lived “altogether outside the sphere of politics.” To the contrary, the avatars of totalitarian democracy maintain that they have arrived at a sole and exclusive truth. Consequently, the personal becomes the political. The car you drive, the clothes you wear, and the movies you watch—it all becomes, as President Barack Obama is fond of saying, a “teachable moment.” Politics is not on the sideline; it is the juggernaut that perfects mankind in accordance with the totalitarian truth. Law is the principal instrument by which this overwhelming force is wielded.

As such, law manifests the central contradiction of political Messianism. Totalitarian democrats, also known as “progressives,” have feigned homage to the centrality of freedom since the French Revolution. But whereas the conservative (i.e., the classic, Burkean “liberal”) finds the essence of freedom in what Talmon described as “spontaneity and the absence of coercion,” progressives like Justice Ginsburg and President Barack Obama “believe it to be realized only in the pursuit and attainment of an absolute collective purpose.”

Thus, the circle that cannot be squared: Even if we assume for the sake of argument that totalitarian democrats are well-intentioned—that their quest for social justice, their “absolute collective purpose,” is not merely a thin veneer for the pursuit of raw power—human freedom is not compatible with an exclusive pattern of social existence. Thinking that it is leads to cognitive dissonance of the Jean-Jacques Rousseau variety. Rousseau was the seminal totalitarian democrat who thought that man must “be forced to be free” because liberty “tacitly includes the undertaking, which alone can give force to [the social compact], that whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be compelled to do so by the whole body” of society…

As Talmon put it, addressing the tension between freedom and the progressive vision:

This difficulty could only be resolved by thinking not in terms of men as they are, but as they were meant to be, and would be, given the proper conditions. In so far as they are at variance with the absolute ideal they can be ignored, coerced or intimidated into conforming without any real violation of the democratic principle being involved. In the proper conditions, it is held, the conflict between spontaneity and duty would disappear, and with it the need for coercion. The practical question is, of course, whether constraint will disappear because all have learned to act in harmony, or because all opponents have been eliminated.

Islam, we are tirelessly reminded by its apologists citing Sura 2:256, prohibits compulsion in matters of religion. We need, however, to read the sharia fine-print. True, Islam will not force you to become a believer—at least not officially. It has no compunction, however, about imposing what Talmon would call “the proper conditions”—the sharia system, which, in fact, assumes the presence in the caliphate of non-believers, whose subjugation has a sobering in terrorem effect (and whose obligatory poll tax promotes the sharia state’s fiscal health). The concept is that with enough coercion, there will eventually be no need for coercion: everyone, of his own accord, will come to the good sense of becoming a Muslim—all other alternatives having been dhimmified into desuetude.

Post–World War II, “all the constitution writing” so admired by Justice Ginsburg for its promotion of human rights has become totalitarian democracy’s cognate version of social engineering. It seeks to create the proper conditions that might mold us into what progressives think we are meant to be. The wellspring of this rights revolution is “international humanitarian law,” a now bulging corpus of bien pensant pieties.

The global human rights movement represents over half a century’s erosion of first principles: that nations are sovereign; that international standards may not be applied to them absent their consent; and that treaties are political agreements between national governments, not banquets of individual and largely redistributive “rights” that citizens may enforce judicially against national governments. This regression, from the venerable “Law of Nations” enshrined in our Constitution to today’s amorphous international humanitarian law mirrors the ongoing contortion of domestic “rights” from freedom-preserving safeguards enjoyed by all citizens against government into freedom-killing intrusions into private life by government for the benefit of some citizens over others…

The Warren Court, Obama explained back in 2001, failed to “break free from the essential constraints that were placed by the founding fathers in the Constitution.” Instead, Obama complained, the justices clung to the hoary construction of the Constitution as “a charter of negative liberties,” one that says only what government “can’t do to you.” Obama explained that real economic justice demands the positive case: what government “must do on your behalf.”

This philosophy is a reprise of what Jonah Goldberg elegantly calls the “apotheosis of liberal aspirations.” It first surfaced in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1944 proposal of a “Second Bill of Rights,” a mandate that government construct “a new basis of security and prosperity.” The new guarantees—which, not coincidentally, also found their way into Mrs. Roosevelt’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights—would include “a useful and remunerative job,” “a decent home,” “adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health,” “adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment,” and a “good education.”

This is the dream of totalitarian democracy, and Obama hopes to be its political Messiah. Law is to be the principal tool for achieving it. Politically, it cannot be done: the cost would be too prohibitive even if a rising tide of citizens were not already growing restive over the debt crisis that Washington blithely ignores. Thus, the Left’s reliance on law: Americans like to see themselves as law-abiding—which is why politicians lace their rhetoric with allusions to the “rule of law” though they exhibit scant allegiance to the law in their own machinations. Americans are apt to abide even that which they deeply resent if they come to believe the law requires it.

The sad irony is that the inversion of rights from safeguards to entitlements is a profound betrayal of our fundamental law. The political commentator Mark Levin has explained it well:

This is tyranny’s disguise. These are not rights. They are the Statist’s false promises of utopianism, which the Statist uses to justify all trespasses on the individual’s private property. Liberty and private property go hand in hand. By dominating one, the Statist dominates both, for if the individual cannot keep or dispose of the value he creates by his own intellectual and/or physical labor, he exists to serve the state. The “Second Bill of Rights” and its legal and policy progeny require the individual to surrender control of his fate to the government.

For the framers, government was a necessary evil. It was required for a free people’s collective security but, if insufficiently checked, it was guaranteed to devour liberty. The purpose of the Constitution was not to make the positive case for government. The case for government is the case for submission—submission to, as Talmon put it, the “sole and exclusive truth,” the progressives’ “absolute collective purpose,” their “proper conditions” for making men not what they are but what “they were meant to be.”

In stark contrast, the Constitution is the positive case for freedom—real freedom, not freedom in the sense (actually, the nonsense) of Rousseau, the Islamists, and totalitarian democracy, in which the individual complies because a coercive environment leaves him with no other options…

We are in an age of upheaval, and what becomes of our law will go a long way toward determining how it ends. In a free society such as ours, grounded in a culture of ordered liberty, law should not be a didactic force. It undergirds economic and social life as it is already lived, reflecting the society’s values rather than instructing the society on what to think and how to live. But today’s progressive legal elites would have it another way. To them, the “rule of law” is code for a “social justice” crusade in which the courts, government bureaucracies, and international tribunals replace democratic self-determination with their sole and exclusive truth. If the progressives get their way, upheaval will not yield utopia. It will yield totalitarianism.

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6 Responses to The nonsense of Rousseau, the Islamists, and totalitarian democracy

  1. Paul Marks says:

    Yes – for Obama is not even a democrat. Not in the sense that he is really speaking for “the people” against an “unelected Supreme Court”.

    The last thing Comrade Barack wants is an elected Supreme Court – for that might to a lead to a debate (among the candidates fo the Supreme Court) about what the Constitution is about – and Barack certainly does not want people reading the Constitution, or the words of the Founders generally.

    Nor does Barack Obama really speak for “the people”, as they oppose Obamacare. The Congressmen and Senators voted for a Bill they had not even read AGAINST the will of the voters (they did so because of various “favours” from the Administration).

    So how does Barack square this circle?

    Just as you point out – the same way Rousseau did.

    The “General Will” is not the “will of all”. People just think they oppose Obamacare – they have (as Karl Marx put it) “false consciousness”. He, Comrade Barack, is the law give – he knows the “General Will” and even if every other person says “no” their true selves mean “yes”.

    This doctrine (in the form Rousseau framed it) was perfecty for the Jacabins of the French Revolution, it allowed them to make war upon the people of France (not a handfull of aristocrats as the story books would have it – but the ordinary peasantry who made up the majorty of the population) whilst pretending (even to themselves) that they spoke for the people.

    Of course Comrade Barack was educated in the later form of this doctrine (the form of the Marxist Frankfurt School), but it is basically the same.

    • John says:

      Don’t know if you remember this from a great scene in Rob Roy: the “bad guy” aristocrat refers disdainfully to some political enemies as “Jacobites!” Always loved how it dripped off his tongue.

      • Paul Marks says:

        Not the same John.

        The Jacobins are one of the extreme factions of the French Revolution.

        Whereas the Jacobites were the supporters of the restoration of the Stuarts in Britain (and Ireland) – active in the early (rather than late) 18th century.

        However……

        The Jacobites depended on the support of a French tyranny (the unlimited government of Louis XIV – the Sun King, and then of his grandson Louis XV a man who, sadly, did not really turn away from the statism of the Sun King and his chief minister Colbert) – and the Jacobins set up another French tyranny (the French Revolutionary regime)

        To most people these regimes (that of the Sun King and the later, more than 50 years later, Revolutionary regime) were opposites – but both had no respect for private property and placed no limit to the power of government.

        So, in this, they were akin.

        A genuine artistocrat (as opposed to those toadies who surrounded the Sun King) would oppose BOTH regimes – as a threat to their life as independent people.

      • John says:

        I only meant I preferred how the latter sounds, as invective, per the scene in Rob Roy, directed to today’s radicals. The ‘bad’ aristocrat was only to steer you/anybody to the character whose name I couldn’t recall. Played by Jonathan (?) Hurt. Thanks

      • Paul Marks says:

        John – I apologize for misunderstanding you.

      • John says:

        Oh no – you just added great clarification and I was sloppy. You’ll have to do much worse than that to owe me an apology! Thanks

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