Liberalism Has an Unhappiness Problem
Monday Notes
Liberalism Has an Unhappiness Problem
Being alive is a perpetual exercise in being let down by our own expectations.
Published on: Jan 31, 2022  |  

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The problem with liberalism is that it makes us happy while also making us unhappy. One reason for this is that liberalism isn't aligned with human nature. If it was, there would be more of it throughout human history. This isn't disqualifying—often, liberalism's unnatural nature has been more a feature than a bug. But clearly there's an issue here.

As Francis Fukuyama writes in The Origins of Political Order: "That individualism seems today like a solid core of our economic and political behavior is only because we have developed institutions that override our more naturally communal instincts." This is perhaps liberalism's greatest success: it has made us better (or worse, depending on your perspective) than we actually were—and are.

I've been thinking about unhappiness more these days, not in the psychological sense but in terms of its political implications. I'm not alone. The New York Times' Ross Douthat has consistently rung the alarm, citing liberalism's growing association with unhappiness. Douthat writes that too many people are unhappy "under the conditions of liberalism," which raises the question of whether liberalism itself is causing unhappiness or if other factors correlated with liberalism are the true culprits.

To the extent that liberalism increases individual choice, there is little doubt that its abundance provokes paralysis and then discontent, a notion popularized by the psychologist Barry Schwartz in The Paradox of Choice. This once counterintuitive idea has since been applied to any "free market" that produces unequal outcomes, including the sexual and religious marketplaces. The French novelist Michel Houellebecq has been perhaps the most perceptive chronicler of how the marketization of sex combines with religious emptiness to produce deeply unsatisfied young men. (Interestingly, it's precisely his preoccupation with how sex and religion interact that leads him to be somewhat obsessed with Islam.)

Living in Western democracies seems like a perpetual exercise in being let down by our own expectations. I would suggest that liberalism is part of the "problem," but there is a risk of attributing too much power to an idea. Liberalism, like many modern innovations, may be a "secularized theological concept," but that doesn't mean it should be elevated into a quasi-mystical force—the cause of causes. What we can say, more modestly, is that liberalism is correlated with educational attainment, decreased church attendance, and decline of familial structures—and that these things, in turn, have considerable explanatory power. One could reply, of course, that there has never existed a liberal society in which religion has not declined, and they would be right. (Until a few years ago, America was the exception that allowed people to think that liberalism and religion could be mutually reinforcing.)

"U.S. Church Membership Falls Below 50 Percent for First Time" (Gallup) March 29, 2021

Post- or anti-liberal alternatives to liberalism are intriguing—but this tends to be the case more in theory than in practice. There is an odd sort of thrill to be had in imagining alternative futures and alternative political systems, particularly with the knowledge that radical schemes are likely to be constrained by reality, thereby absolving the believer of the responsibility to game out the practical implications of abstract theory.

I was reminded of this while re-reading one of the most consequential anti-liberal thinkers of the 20th century. Sayyid Qutb—a Muslim Brotherhood ideologue who was hung by the Nasser regime in 1966—likely knew that the application of his theories to the Egyptian state was improbable. But his ideas and arguments—particularly those in his most well-known and controversial work Milestoneswere not a blueprint for government. And they weren't meant to be. As the historian Barbara Zollner notes, Milestones was a "guidebook" and a "textbook" intended for a specific audience. Qutb wanted to fashion a vanguard that would commit itself to a new and radical kind of Islamic activism and organizing. To do this, they had to pledge themselves to a totalizing conception of God's sovereignty. When Qutb said something like, "Islam is a declaration of the freedom of man from servitude to other men," he was attempting to recast freedom as something other than what it had been. This was a way of thinking about the world, not a way of governing it.

More than anything else, Milestones is best understood as an exhortation, which is an essayistic and propagandist way of writing—akin to pamphleteering—that has largely gone out of fashion. (For a modern-day and much less intellectually serious example of exhortation, see Murtaza Hussain's review of Bronze Age Pervert's radical right manifesto Bronze Age Mindset.) The goal of exhortation is to equip a relatively small but devoted following to reorient their relationship to the surrounding environment. This is done by introducing a different set of conceptual tools and premises that are pitched so directly and fully against prevailing sentiment that they seem both out of time and timeless.

The more I've been reading the "New Right," the more I see (inadvertent) echoes of a distinctly Qutbist manner of thinking. As the political theorist David Polansky points out, Qutbist broadsides against liberalism sound more relevant today than in the 1950s—or even ten years ago. Liberalism, of course, is weaker today, eroded by the self-doubt of its own erstwhile partisans. Sayyid Qutb, as it turns out, was behind the times but also ahead of them.