“This book undoubtedly represents an evolution in Rubin’s thinking, and contrary to those who accuse him of changing to suit others, changing one’s mind on philosophical beliefs is not automatically a disqualification.”
was apprehensive about picking up Dave Rubin’s Don’t Burn This Country, which was released last month, given that I was not the greatest fan of his last book. However, it is nevertheless worth reviewing this book because Rubin has a significant audience through his YouTube channel and now occupies a space in the activist conservative ecosystem, having joined Glenn Beck’s Blaze Media. This book, therefore, reveals both what the conservative base is likely to be absorbing and also what a part of the American conservative commentariat world is thinking. Networks and institutions matter when it comes to spreading ideas, after all.
My main point of disagreement with the book is both ideological and philosophical. Rubin pursues a worldview inimical to the world he says he wants to build. He ends this book by claiming the benefits of community over the collective; however, his solutions will simply strengthen the collectivist impulse he despises by increasing the atomization that dissolves community and creates collectivism. For Rubin, the individual is the main base for life, while “the collective doesn’t exist.” While individuals obviously exist and are indeed the basis for politics in their ineradicable dignity, the idea that collectives do not exist is simply not true.
The book is structured with each chapter offering advice on how to navigate the undoubted weirdness of our times. Chapters are headed with titles like “Dismantling Systems of Structural Stupidity” (rebuttal to systemic oppression), “Propaganda Protection” (resisting fake news, always from the Left, never the Right), “The Declaration of Digital Independence” (get off social media), “Capitalism > Socialism” (free markets are the best), “Embrace your Inner Black Sheep” (think for yourself…in ways that cohere with a certain worldview), “The Eighteenth-Century Lesbian Poetry Trap” (college is a ridiculous waste of time and money), and “You Don’t Need a Bunker (But You Do Need a Plan).” This is all fairly obvious stuff and is similarly seen in many other books published by followers of what we might call right-liberalism.
Rubin names a series of philosophers but also actually quotes them. This is compared to Don’t Burn This Book that presented itself as a book of ideas but which did not actually feature any ideas from the thinkers mentioned within. The introduction where he describes his feelings during the beginning of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in the United States is effective and affecting. Rubin’s thoughts on pursuing parenthood, with his partner David echoes that of many would-be parents in such times: “…there I was: forty-three years old and the world was ending. Something shifted in me—I felt like it was now or never. If the world was really ending, I decided that creating life was my only chance at saving it.” His stomach churning with emotion echoes many whose minds were rendered chaotic by the feeling of falling over the cliff into something we knew not what, having no idea of where we would end up.
This feeling of complete disorientation meant that some clung ever more closely to official narratives and institutions, no matter how untrue or faulty they turned out to be. Others, who gave these narratives a chance at the beginning, rapidly went in the other direction either as the discrepancies became too obvious to ignore or simply because they were predisposed to a base-level contrarianism.
The problem is that it is not good to adhere blindly to “the current thing.” However it is not desirable either to pursue reflexive contrarianism to the extent of being against whatever the current thing is, just because of what it is and who is communicating it. Neither reaction signifies discernment, and Don’t Burn This Country, with its inherent distrust and antipathy to absolutely all mainstream arguments, is emblematic of this: of adherence to a form of dissident narrative presented as independent mindedness and skepticism.
This is revealed when Rubin writes “The US presidential election came and went, fraught with skepticism, and America’s biggest (and sketchiest) pharmaceutical corporations raced to manufacture and distribute a vaccine before it was ever approved or even properly tested,” and “As of this writing, it seems like everything reported to us was a lie, and the new coronavirus that emerged to cause COVID-19, named SARS-CoV-2, may actually be a leaked bio-weapon from a lab in Wuhan, China.” There was media manipulation around the lab leak hypothesis for COVID-19, and big tech censorship of the same, but I am not sure everything was a lie, and the bio-weapon claim is not even seriously made by those who argue in favor of a lab leak hypothesis.
Furthermore, “In retrospect, it was all bullshit from the beginning” and “Pretty much everyone basically fell in line and fully complied” are not exactly nuanced claims. Praising former President Donald Trump for pushing unverified COVID-19 treatments such as Hydroxychloroquine while also saying that “When it came to COVID-19, let’s just all come out and say it: the science was always secondary (and a little bit sketchy)” seems rather contradictory. It is these sorts of statements, along with Rubin’s ideological certainty, which encouraged a pause over the claim “Certitude is poisonous. When you’re certain of everything, you can never learn anything.”
This brings us to the chapter titles emblematic of my aforementioned deeper philosophical problems with Rubin’s book: “There Are No Other Letters in ‘I,'” “Embrace your Inner Black Sheep,” and “Be a Hero, Not A Comrade.” Together these chapters lay out Rubin’s personal view of his philosophy of life, his approach to existence day-to-day and in the round. As is obvious, the emphasis is on the independent individual who declines to follow the flock in whichever thoughtless direction it decides to go. Individualism is the order of the day and the ordering principle that decides the highest good for the political community, if there even is a political community in this view of the world.
This fundamental orientation, in my view, plays into the fracturing of knowledge and narratives revealed by the COVID-19 pandemic, where individual experiences and stories determined which facts were absorbed, believed and then weaponized, along with a continuing dissolving of social ties from the top-down but also from the bottom-up. This individualism is, of course, rooted in the liberal philosophy that Rubin nodded toward in his last book but which he moves away from in this one. While he claims liberalism is no longer equal to the task, Rubin’s deepest presuppositions are still inescapably liberal.
The epitome of the individualist worldview cited by Rubin is Ralph Waldo Emerson and his 1841 essay “Self-Reliance.” As Rubin writes, “Within it, Emerson defines individualism as a deep and unshakeable trust in one’s own intuitions,” with the main idea in “Self-Reliance” being “that the greatest things of value don’t come from outward institutions—they come from within.” For Emerson, “Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs.” This embodies the inward turn to the cultivation of the “true” self, described by Carl Truman in his 2020 book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. It is a false depiction of our nature and, therefore, inimical to the true flourishing that can only be experienced in community with others, beginning in the family, moving out to the locality, and finally the nation.
Rubin writes that “Historically, institutions such as the government, the church, and academia use the structure itself to shape people and society. True men—true humans—are individualists or, in Emerson’s words,’‘Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist.'” The fact that institutions derive from our inherently social nature (arising from our need to coordinate collective action to solve shared problems) is ignored. Yuval Levin has written about how institutions no longer mold us to their ends in order to perform their function for the community. Instead, they have become platforms from which we perform our felt inner-reality. This is rooted in the Emersonian individualism Rubin subscribes to, where the idea that “imitation is suicide” is belied by the need to rely on the inherited systemic wisdom of our ancestors—and to constrain our wants and desires for the good of our community and to maintain the web of relations that comprises our social ecology.
Rubin’s attack on collectivism and his support for individualism feature quotations from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. According to Rubin, “Tocqueville, forever the invested far-off onlooker, understood American democracy—what he called ‘the equality of conditions’—not merely as a way to govern but as a way to live. Individualism was a lifestyle, not rooted in selfishness but in self-reliance, empowering the individual.” For Rubin, Tocqueville “feared that democratic individualism would produce a ‘tyranny of the majority.’ In essence, he warned the majority could easily amass too much power and impose large, sweeping systems of control on local communities. The result would be a society not comprised of independent people but instead reliant on large, centralized systems that they wouldn’t be able to survive without.”
This is a selective reading of Tocqueville’s deep thought and insights on the new form of life ushered in by democracy and how it had reshaped man’s soul away from the aristocratic world of the ancien régime. Rubin says that Tocqueville celebrated the individual and individualism as the best way of organizing politics and living life. He then apparently juxtaposes this with the collectivist “tyranny of the majority.” Rubin neglects to mention that the democratic soul, atomized and invested in equality, would through its individualism and if unrestrained usher in the very conditions that Rubin says Tocqueville warns us of. Indeed, Tocqueville warned strongly of the negative effects of individualism in the democratic age, where the isolated and atomized individual is alone and without recourse to a community in which he decides what is good and finds the right course of action, and through which he goes about achieving these ends:
“Democracy breaks the chain and frees each link…Thus, not only does democracy make men forget their ancestors, but also clouds their view of their descendants and isolates them from their contemporaries. Each man is forever thrown back upon himself alone and there is a danger that he may be shut up in the solitude of his own heart.”
Tocqueville painted a picture of man as arrogantly confident of his independent capabilities, who thereby ends up relying on, and giving power to, the increasingly overbearing state:
“So…no man is obliged to put his powers at the disposal of another, and no one has any claim of right to substantial support from his fellow man, each is both independent and weak. These two conditions, which must be neither seen quite separately nor confused, give the citizen of a democracy extremely contradictory instincts. He is full of confidence and pride in his independence among his equals, but from time to time his weakness makes him feel the need for some outside help which he cannot expect from any of his fellows, for they are both impotent and cold. In this extremity he naturally turns his eyes toward that huge entity [the tutelary state] which alone stands out above the universal level of abasement. His needs, and even more his longings, continually put him in mind of that entity, and he ends by regarding it as the sole and necessary support of his individual weakness.”
None of this is considered or even mentioned by Rubin. Rubin then warns against the tyranny of the majority suppressing the individual but then says that “there is the woke mob—small but mighty—creating a tyranny of the majority, not by numbers but by being the loudest, most active, and most oppressive.” Again, Rubin writes, “Instead of varying individual thought being discussed, we’re dissolving into a tyranny of the majority via the collectivist conformity that has emerged from the fear of not being deemed publicly woke.” So which is it? A majority inflamed by democratic urges to instantiate the perceived will of the people over any dissent, or a minority shouting the loudest to tyrannize the majority? One of these is not like the other.
Rubin also quotes from the work of Ayn Rand to justify his own form of corporate fusionist conservatism. Of course, the fact that Ayn Rand was a terrible writer and relied on a form of sub-Nietzschean pseudo-morality to justify her depictions of glorious capitalist übermenschen crushing anyone in their way while cutting off those too weak to be worth bothering with is neither here nor there. Rand peddled a form of soft nihilism through her turgid prose that has inflamed many a teenage boy’s fantasies about mastery over the world and the drive to conquer and subjugate that is part of male adolescence.
These drives are natural and a part of growing up, so the issue is not the impulses themselves but how they are articulated and directed. The point of community in a Tocquevillian sense was to channel these base drives toward the common good and not simply to indulge in self-aggrandizement and mastery over others. As Patrick Deneen writes, “Tocqueville notes that the propensity to think only within the context of one’s own lifespan, and to focus on satisfaction of immediate and baser pleasures, is a basic ‘propensity in human nature.’ To chasten, educate, and moderate this basic instinct is the fruit of broader political, social, religious, and familial structures, practices, and expectations.” In sum, the treatment of Tocqueville and the favorable treatment of Ayn Rand is demonstrative of how we get to this claim: “Put simply, the Left is for collectivism and judgment based on group identity; the Right is for individual thought, individual expression, and personal liberty.”
Rubin’s use of Rand in service of a capitalist worldview that is supposedly the only moral way to conduct our economic affairs is argued in overly simplistic terms. For Rubin, capitalism is the best way to unshackle the individual from the collective, the system of laissez-faire offering protection from both government tyranny and mob rule. The everyday buying and selling of goods and services is the greatest example of individualism there is and is reflected in the use of technology by more and more people to work from home, not only cutting the constricting ties of government but also of big companies.
The paeans to Randian Objectivism as the most moral expression of capitalist thinking is belied by the fact that Rand ended up by claiming welfare in her old age, directly against the dogma she rammed down everyone else’s throats. At least libertarians like Isabel Paterson put the social security checks in a drawer with “No” scrawled across them. That is a level of principle I can admire, even if the substance of those principles is far from my own position.
Even so, in Rubin’s view “Capitalism means that there are voluntary trades for mutual self-interest and mutual benefit, creating scenarios within which everyone can win. Socialism is compulsory, forcing people to play a game where if one side is winning, the other is losing. If one climbs the ranks, another is being oppressed. Capitalism unites people under the idea that everyone can participate; socialism divides them into winners and losers.” Never mind the risk of cronyism, as well as the trend toward monopolization and collusion between market actors. The idea that capitalism does not tend toward people slipping their moral leashes and practicing brutal self-interest was refuted by those like David Ricardo and Adam Smith. The tendency of capitalism toward undermining the very virtues needed to function was discussed by Daniel Bell in his 1976masterwork The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. Indeed, Smith himself wrote that “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.”
As Christopher Lasch wrote, the unrealistic idea was that capitalism would unleash man’s baser nature, but they would be restrained by some sort of utilitarian self-interest. In my view, the fact that Rubin thinks that the 2008 crash was entirely the fault of government (and not the result of the debasement of certain financial instruments operating according to base human desires in both the worlds of finance and government) shows a skewed understanding. But apparently, “economic meltdowns aren’t typically the effects of capitalism—capitalism seeks to create win-win scenarios. The problem is socialist compulsion: using government force to decide the winners and losers.” This would have been surprising to those suffering through the Great Depression. Meanwhile, former President Bill Clinton, through Lawrence Summers, Robert Rubin, and Alan Greenspan, cleared away the legislation that restrained the banking sector that enabled the market to run riot in combination with good, old-fashioned human greed.
According to Rubin, “We know that the $15-per-hour wage floor hurts small businesses and causes the most at-risk to lose jobs, eventually replacing humans with glorified iPads.” As such, “facts and reality are not typically a problem for conservatives.” This ignores that in the 2020 election Florida voted in conservative officials and legislators but also voted to raise the minimum wage. This inability to see that the state and the laws it passes and enacts are necessary for markets to exist at all (and that the constraint of social mores expressed through laws is necessary for markets to function) is seen in Rubin’s dichotomy between the market (capitalism) and the state (socialism). This is just wrong. As Karl Polanyi wrote, from the beginning, “laissez-faire was planned.”
All of this is Rubin’s way of trying to find a manner in which to resist the horror of collectivism. And he is correct that collectivism drenched the world in blood in the 20th century, leaving over 100 million dead from the nightmares of Nazism, Fascism, and Communism. The issue is that the very individualism Rubin celebrates lays the groundwork for the collectivism he condemns. In fact it would be accurate to say that individualism is the midwife of collectivism. Authors from as diverse a range as Hannah Arendt, Erich Fromm, and Robert Nisbet warned about the dangers of individualism’s endpoint. Arendt wrote that “What prepares men for totalitarian domination…is the fact that loneliness, once a borderline experience usually suffered in certain marginal social conditions like old age, has become an everyday experience of the ever-growing masses of our century.”
An atomized populous might look to salve the wound of loneliness through dissolving the buffeted and vulnerable self into the collective, the “suicidal escape from this reality” pursued by the individual no longer able to achieve salvation in the wake of the Death of God. This populous instead alleviates the almost unbearable burden of spiritual, social, and economic existence through supposed collective salvation here on earth within History itself, following the hellish prophecies of false messiahs.
The woke menace that Rubin castigates, and rightly, has arisen at the same time as rates of loneliness have been skyrocketing, rising even before the COVID-19 pandemic closed us off to each other even more. This is combined with crashing fertility rates and rising divorce rates, both of which mean that young people yearn for a sense of connection and solidarity beyond their isolated selves.
The fact that the sub-Protestant identity politics movements offer a vision of a world made new through the constant struggle to remove the stain of the sin of white, heteropatriarchal oppression from existence gives both a reason to live and a motivation to act, all while giving a sense of communal membership, no matter how ersatz that may be. Add in the accelerant of the all-seeing Sauron’s Eye of social media along with the liquifying effects of digital technology more generally, and one has the fulfillment of the worldview that Rubin presents as the answer to America’s woes.
This book undoubtedly represents an evolution in Rubin’s thinking, and contrary to those who accuse him of changing to suit others, changing one’s mind on philosophical beliefs is not automatically a disqualification. The problem is what Rubin has changed his mind to. Ultimately, his book expresses a form of corporate-fusionist conservatism for the digital age. It is not obvious that this will provide answers to the questions of our time.
Henry George is a writer from the United Kingdom, focusing on politics, political philosophy, and culture. He has also written at Quillette, UnHerd, Arc Digital, The University Bookman, and Intercollegiate Review.