Search This Blog

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The new Roger Kimball book

I recently read The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia by Roger Kimball.
Anyone familiar with his work knows that he is tremendously knowledgeable and a terrific writer.  He does not disappoint.

This review by Bruce Thornton gives a good overview of the book:
Roger Kimball has long been one of America’s most learned commentators on intellectual history, contemporary politics, fine art, and architecture. Longtime editor of The New Criterion and more recently publisher of Encounter Books, Kimball authored two of the best exposés of the left-wing corruption of the American university: Tenured Radicals and The Long March. The 21 essays in Kimball’s new book, The Fortunes of Permanence, cover a remarkable range of topics: relativism, multiculturalism, radical egalitarianism, the enduring importance of tradition, the delusions of socialism, “democratic despotism,” the dangers of sentimental “benevolence,” and the cultural significance of the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The essays also discuss a wide variety of individual writers: those unfairly demonized, like Rudyard Kipling; those insufficiently well known, like Leszek Kołakowski, Richard Weaver, and James Burnham; and those familiar yet still worthy of explication and reconsideration, like G. K. Chesterton and Friedrich Hayek.
 Kimball’s survey articulates his two great themes. The first is the need to battle what he has elsewhere called “cultural amnesia”; the struggle requires recovering the great thinkers and writers of the past, “the salient figures whose works helped weave the great unfolding tapestry of our civilization” but “whose voices have been drowned out by the demotic inanities of pop culture or embalmed by the dead hand of the academy.” Second is the importance of “discrimination,” or what Kimball calls “the gritty job of intellectual and cultural trash collector,” in which one identifies and disposes of the faddish and politicized ephemera that make up most of the art and writing celebrated by the bien-pensant elite.
Kimball’s “anatomy of servitude,” as he calls it—his analysis of cultural, educational, and political degeneration—doesn’t end on a Spenglerian note of inevitable decline. Such determinism would contradict the celebration of human freedom that recurs throughout these essays. We can choose a different course, and we have the resources to do so.
"Intellectual and cultural trash collector" is a pretty good description of the task of debunking so much of what I now call Postmodernist dreck.  The failure to grasp the intellectual embarrassment entailed in such ideas is part of the problem.  Perhaps it is of less consequence than the power lust that promotes such nonsense. 

What follows, for your enjoyment,  are excerpts from two of the essays included in the book:

First, from   Leszek Kolakowski & the anatomy of totalitarianism :
No, Marxism has been as wrong as it is possible for a theory to be wrong. Addicted to “the self-deification of mankind,” it continually bears witness to what Kolakowski calls “the farcical aspect of human bondage.” Why then was Marxism like moral catnip—not so much among its proposed beneficiaries, the working classes, but among the educated elite? Well, beguiling simplicity was part of it. “One of the causes of the popularity of Marxism among educated people,” Kolakowski notes, “was the fact that in its simple form it was very easy.” Marxism—like Freudianism, like Darwinism, like Hegelianism—is a “one key fits all locks” philosophy.  All aspects of human experience can be referred to the operation of a single all-governing process which thereby offers the illusion of universal explanation.

Marxism also spoke powerfully to mankind’s unsatisfied utopian impulses. How imperfect a construct is capitalist society: how much conflict does it abet, how many desires does it leave unsatisfied! Can we not imagine a world beyond those tensions and conflicts in which we could realize our full human potential without competition, without scarcity, without want? Sure, we can imagine it, but there is a reason that “utopia” means “nowhere.”
Of course, it is not just to mankind’s spiritual cravings that Marxism appeals. It also speaks to its inherent thuggishness. This cannot be emphasized too much. These days, Stalin and Stalinism are in bad odor. We forget the romance that Western intellectuals indulged for this mass murderer.  We also tend to overlook the fact that thuggishness is an integral, not an accidental, feature of Marxism.
To be an anatomist of totalitarianism is also to be a connoisseur of freedom, its many beguiling counterfeits as well as its genuine aspirations.The question—the lure, the never fulfilled but inescapable promise—of freedom stands at the center of much of Kolakowski’s work.
Part of what makes Kolakowski’s reflections on freedom and its vicissitudes so fruitful is his understanding that human freedom is inextricably tied to a recognition of limits, which in the end involves a recognition of the sacred.This has been a leitmotif of his work from the beginning. In The Alienation of Reason (1966), he criticizes positivism as “an attempt to consolidate science as a self-sufficient activity, which exhausts all the possible ways of appropriating the world intellectually.”

In “Man Does Not Live by Reason Alone” (1991), Kolakowski argues that “mankind can never get rid of the need for religious self-identification: who am I, where did I come from, where do I fit in, why am I responsible, what does my life mean, how will I face death? Religion is a paramount aspect of human culture. Religious need cannot be ex-communicated from culture by rationalist incantation. Man does not live by reason alone.” He shows how the tendency to believe that all human problems have a technical solution is an unfortunate inheritance from the Enlightenment—“even,” he notes, “from the best aspects of the Enlightenment: from its struggle against intolerance, self-complacency, superstitions, and uncritical worship of tradition.” There is much about human life that is not susceptible to human remedy or intervention. Our allegiance to the ideal of unlimited progress is, paradoxically, a dangerous moral limitation that is closely bound up with what Kolakowski calls the loss of the sacred. “With the disappearance of the sacred,” he writes,
which imposed limits to the perfection that could be attained by the profane, arises one of the most dangerous illusions of our civilization—the illusion that there are no limits to the changes that human life can undergo, that society is “in principle” an endlessly flexible thing, and that to deny this flexibility and this perfectibility is to deny man’s total autonomy and thus to deny man himself.
These are wise words, grippingly pertinent to an age conjuring with the immense technological novelties of cloning, genetic engineering, and other Promethean temptations. We pride ourselves today on our “openness” and commitment to liberal ideals, our empathy for other cultures, and our sophisticated understanding that our way of viewing the world is, after all, only our way of viewing the world. But Kolakowski reminds us that, without a prior commitment to substantive values—to an ideal of the good and (just as important) an acknowledgment of evil—openness threatens to degenerate into vacuousness. Given the shape of our post-Soviet, technologically infatuated world, perhaps it is that admonition, even more than his heroic demolition of Marxism, for which Leszek Kolakowski will be honored in the decades to come.
Oh, the misery unleashed by the unconstrained vision!

The final essay is   The Anglosphere & the future of liberty:
English, Bishop Sprat thought, is conspicuously the friend of empirical truth. It is also conspicuously the friend of liberty. Andrew Roberts, reflecting on the pedigree of certain ideas in the lexicon of freedom, notes that such key phrases as “liberty of conscience” (1580), “civil liberty” (1644, a Miltonic coinage), and “liberty of the press” (1769) were first expressed in English. Why is it that English-speaking countries produced Adam Smith and John Locke, David Hume and James Madison, but not Hegel, Marx, or Foucault? “The tongue and the philosophy are not unrelated,” the philologist Robert Claiborne writes in The Life and Times of the English Language. “Both reflect the ingrained Anglo-American distrust of unlimited authority, whether in language or in life.”
 I have nothing by way of an explanation for this filiation between the English language and the habit of liberty. I merely note its existence. Alan Macfarlane, in his classic Origins of English Individualism (1978), shows that the habit is far older than we have been taught to believe. According to the Marxist narrative, individualism is a “bourgeois construct” whose motor belongs to the eighteenth-century. Macfarlane shows that, on the contrary, “since at least the thirteenth century England has been a country where the individual has been more important than the group.” “Peasant” was a term the English used about others but not themselves. Why? Macfarlane locates the answer in the presence of a market economy, an “individualistic pattern of ownership,” and strong recourse to local initiative that were prominent features of English life at least since 1250. “In many respects,” he writes, “England had probably long been different from almost every other major agrarian society we know.”
The anatomy of servitude, which bulks large in what follows, tells a depressing story. But it is not all of the story. Even the “apocalyptic” Mark Steyn points to the way out. He is quite right that “you cannot wage a sustained ideological assault on your own civilization without profound consequence.” We’ve had the assault and we are living with the consequences. He is also right that “without serious course correction, we will see the end of the Anglo-American era, and the eclipse of the powers that built the modern world.” The hopeful part of that prediction comes in the apodosis: the course may still be corrected. As Hayek noted about his own dire diagnosis: “The consequences can of course be averted if that spirit reasserts itself in time.” There are, I believe, two main sources of hope. One lies in the past, in the depth and strength of the Anglosphere’s traditional commitment to individual freedom and local initiative against the meddlesome intrusion of any central authority. “The future is unknowable,” said Churchill, “but the past should give us hope.” The Anglosphere, James Bennett writes, “is not a fragile hothouse flower that can be easily uprooted and disappear forever.”

The second main ground for hope lies in the present and immediate future. In the United States, anyway, we have lately witnessed a new “revolt of the masses,” different from, in fact more or less the opposite of, the socialistic eruption Ortega y Gasset limned in his famous essay on the subject. A specter is haunting America, the specter of freedom. What happened on November 2 was not an instance of business as usual in the world of partisan politics. It was stage one in the rejection of that business as usual: the big-government, top-down, elitist egalitarianism practiced by both major parties in the United States. I recently spoke on a cruise sponsored by National Review at which the pollster Scott Rasmussen observed that one thing November’s election demonstrated was that Americans do not want to be governed by Democrats or by Republicans: they want to govern themselves. If he is right—there’s that little word “if” again—the Anglosphere has a lot more mileage in it. Are things bad? Is it late? Yes, and yes again. But as Lord D’Abernon memorably put it, “An Englishman’s mind works best when it is almost too late.”
 Lovers of liberty(and dignity) can hope that his optimism is not misplaced and do their part to aid in such an outcome!


erp said...

Howard, thanks for this post. With Ryan now in the pictures, I'm allowing myself a tiny glimmer of optimism where previously there was only black despair.

Bret said...

Great post! My coblogger comes alive!

I sorta consider Kimball to be the new Buckley.

Erp, why the despair? The way I look at it is that a billion years of evolution and tens of thousands of years leading to the building of western civilization all aligned to give me a pretty darn good life. If the elite class wants to bring it crashing down, at least they waited until I got several good decades in. As far as my children go, I'm teaching them to be resilient and to understand how systems work so they can optimize their place in it, no matter what happens. I'm confident they'll do just fine. I see no reason for despair.

erp said...

I don't want only those kids lucky enough to have us for parents and grandparents to do just fine. I want everybody's chldren to have the same chance at being the best they can be ... and don't be so sure about the future because the new normal would not favor those who aren't either cogs or elites -- and I wouldn't like to see any of my progeny in either category.

Howard said...


Come on now, you need some Churchillian resolve. The Ryan pick indicates there's going to be a real fight, a fight that can be won!

erp said...

Alas, Churchillian resolve didn't prevent Brits from sliding into the socialist pit into hell. As we have tons of evidence of the folly of that course of action, if we allow it to happen to us, we won't have the excuse that we didn't know what we were doing. Our "betters" know exactly what they're doing.

As I said in my comment below, Ryan's entry into the battle is allowing me to give myself a modicum of, dare I say it, hope.

erp said...

This kind of stuff is scaring the bejezus out of me.

Socialists don't play by the rules and aren't gonna give up the game when they think they're so near victory. Only question is: when martial law is declared, will our boys and girls in the military obey the order to fire on us?

Howard said...

No doubt that the Brits are in lousy shape. We are not as far gone yet. Each generation has to learn anew. Ryan can teach the yutes.

Peter said...

No doubt that the Brits are in lousy shape

Why would you say that, Howard? Here is the prosperity index from the Legatum Institute and here is the economic freedom index from the Heritage Foundation. Both are conservative institutes. Not a lot to choose between the US and the UK and neither are in the top ten on either chart.

Your post was wonderful, but if I had to sum up the philosophies of the likes of Kimbrall and Kolakowski, I would say they argue that conservatism is grounded in eyes-wide-open empiricism about human nature, a respect for the lessons of history and an appreciation of the complexities and anomalies of human nature and experience. That's why they are so good at battling leftist utopian simplicities. Surely we ourselves shouldn't fall into the trap of skipping the hard work and just replying with our own shibboleths.

Government entitlements and regulation are indeed important issues touching our freedom and prosperity, but it is naive to imagine if we just got rid of them we would seamlessly usher in a new dawn of peace and plenty.

Howard said...


The "lousy shape" I was referring to is about the infection of the culture by ideas like multiculturalism, political correctness, unrealistic versions of environmentalism, etc., etc. If I'm misreading the extent of the problem, that's good news.

As per entitlements and regulations, I don't advocate their elimination, only that they are kept within limits so as not to smother the private sector.

erp said...

Entitlements and regulations need to be enumerated. As far as I can see our entitlements are: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and our regulations are the laws as set forth by our founding fathers. There were some sensible amendments like universal suffrage, but in the main, the whole bureaucracy could disappear tomorrow and we'd all be the better off for it.

Peter said...

Howard, I realize it is election year and that political philosophy and electoral politics rub shoulders uneasily, but you started it with this dynamite post. I an concerned by the growing tendency of many conservatives to indulge in their own simplistic utopianism (erp, come on down!)and their overly-narrow focus on the constituent elements of freedom and prosperity. Limited government in commerce and low (competitive) taxation are indeed important components, but they aren't the only ones, and there can be tensions among them and hard compromises to make. The rule of law, a minimum of public and private corruption and civil peace are also required.

There are some rare leftists who are worth reading. One is the late Tony Judt, an old postwar British Labourite. In addition to being an excellent 20th century historian, he takes an unusual(for the left)hard empirical approach to his analyses, the kind usually associated with traditional conservatives, eschews shibboleths and does not shy away from scathing criticism of the left and blaming them squarely for their failures.

Judt makes the very interesting and to my mind persuasive argument that the postwar welfare state that was established pretty much everywhere in the West was not just the result of elites living out abstract 19th century utopian dreams. It was built on the hard empirical history of the inter-war period. There was a very broad-based belief that the economic want and penury of that period became highly destabilizing to freedom and democracy and led to a mass attraction to anti-democratic extremisms of both the left and right. It's difficult to imagine today, but the standing of democracy was very, very low in the thirties, obviously in Europe, but also in North America. Hostile radicalisms flourished and there were even plenty of public statements from American business magnates to the effect that democracy no longer "worked" and that some kind of "planning" was required.

As no one wanted to go through WW11again or would accept the destitution of the Depression, and as there were real fears of a popular attraction to Communism and anti-democratic authoritarianism, a social safety net was implemented, even with the begrudging support of most establishment conservatives. The rest, as they say, is history. Since then, there has been a long pattern of mindless, ideological, expensive expansion with all kinds of detrimental effects. These are worth battling, but it is also worth remembering that the objectives of social peace and fidelity to democracy were largely obtained(say what you will about the Nordics, before the war they were poor, class-divided and unstable countries). When we start talking about "undoing" the Great Society or blithely assert the poorer levels of American society will all become Horatio Algers if we just take away their social support, we are indulging in dreamy, naive, dangerous and, frankly, heartless rhetoric with little modern historical justification. Plus it is politically self-wounding. The public, especially the decent muddled middle, will simply not accept seniors living on the streets or sick children dying for lack of medical care, whatever the cause of their plight. Not one.

The other issue we are being a little reckless with is corruption--the private kind. That Wall Street effectively got a pass on massive fraud and breach of trust is potentially very corrosive because it undermines public confidence in equal opportunity and even playing fields. A few conservatives have called for an accounting, but most have ignored it and just taken aim at the (admittedly very real) complicity of government. When a leftist charges that corruption is inherent it capitalism, surely it isn't much of an answer to respond with some drivel about how free markets will root it out in time if only everybody is left alone. Capitalism may not be inherently corrupt, but that doesn't mean capitalists can't be. Hang 'em high,I say.

And now, back to our regular programming. Go Mitt!

erp said...

Peter, surely you know the great depression was engineered for the express purpose of pushing the poor victims of it toward communism. Even well meaning people at the time could have agreed that it was good idea. However, today socialism has been debunked dozens of times and the results are apparent in the dismal conditions in most of the world except where capitalism survived, tattered, but still standing, if totteringly.

Scandinavia is a unique situation. It had a very small homogeneous population where the protestant work ethic, for a time, superseded the collective. That time has passed with subsequent generations not sharing in any work experience.

Anecdotal, but I'm sure pretty typical. A very good friend is Danish-American. She reports that her two nephews now in their forties have NEVER worked a day in their lives yet they live a middle class existence with a home, children etc. They travel and do pretty much what we all do except they don't have to waste any time earning money to pay for it all. They also don't pay taxes. Only Norway with its oil profits can sustain an economy like that.

I wish I could share your confidence in Mitt not slipping into the default mode of all lefty-lite RINO’s and moving the welfare state further toward the edge of the cliff albeit just a little more slowly than those in power now.

Bret said...


I find Judt's argument somewhat persuasive, except for the important detail that there's no inherent reason the social safety net needs to be maintained by the federal government. Why not let states and communities handle it, possibly with some emergency help lent by the federal government in extreme and well-defined situations?

Humans are inherently corrupt, so therefore so is capitalism and government. I think the problem is that the correction mechanisms for corruption in a central government are very limited in scope due to various Public Choice Theory concepts. I think that both decentralized governments and markets are potentially more self-correcting than central governments even if they are still far from perfect.

Anonymous said...

I'll pile on Peter too, but just minor things --

The Nordic countries - my recollection of post WWII history is that the Nordic nations became wealth by embracing free markets and low regulation and after that become the social democratic states we see today (although Sweden, notably, is trying to revert because of the negative economic impact of the welfare state).

I think the bigger problem though is that free market types don't like to tell lies like "this style of economy will eliminate corruption" as the tranzis do. Free markets will always be corrupt, they will simply be less corrupt than centrally planned ones.

Relatedly, " blithely assert the poorer levels of American society will all become Horatio Algers if we just take away their social support" - where does that come from? It's a straw man you frequently bring out. The free market argument is that social support makes the problems of the poor worse, not that removing the support will turn them in to industrious entrepreneurs.

Free markets are much more of a Hippocratic Oath kind of deal, "first, do no harm". Just look at the Great Depression which was made "Great" by the sort of safety and regulatory state that was the putative "cure".