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Cancel Culture and the Tolerance of the Natural Aristocracy

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“To really thrive in our own communities, we need more than just Law and Order; a strong social fabric is required that encourages virtuous behavior as much as it punishes delinquency.”

“Remember Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes exhausts and murders itself. There never was a Democracy Yet, that did not commit suicide. It is in vain to Say that Democracy is less vain, less proud, less selfish, less ambitious or less avaricious than Aristocracy or Monarchy. It is not true in Fact and no where appears in history. Those Passions are the same in all Men under all forms of Simple Government, and when unchecked, produce the same Effects of Fraud Violence and Cruelty. When clear Prospects are opened before Vanity, Pride, Avarice or Ambition, for their easy gratification, it is hard for the most considerate Phylosophers and the most conscientious Moralists to resist the temptation. Individuals have conquered themselves, Nations and large Bodies of Men, never.”

— From John Adams to John Taylor, 17 December 1814

Among the United States’ early revolutionary leaders, John Adams was one of the more ideologically nuanced. Although a staunch republican, throughout his career Adams was routinely suspected of harboring unsavory, antidemocratic sentiments. In truth, what set him apart from most of his peers was a sober attitude toward the realities of government. We see this especially in his correspondences with Thomas Jefferson—at once his great friend and chief political rival—with whom he regularly collided on the matter of aristocracy.

Adams had grave concerns regarding the ineradicable nature of aristocratic inclinations. In contradistinction to John Taylor of Caroline, who was something of a radical Jeffersonian, Adams thought aristocracy a natural given—only to be canalized but never wholly abolished. In this, he was aligned with Jefferson, who clearly delineated a “natural aristocracy,” to be considered separate from the landed, “artificial aristocracy” of the Old World. Unlike Jefferson, however, Adams was deeply cynical about the effects of an untrammeled natural aristocracy on civil society. In a letter to Jefferson, Adams  wrote in no uncertain terms: “Your ‘aristoi’ are the most difficult Animals to manage, of any thing in the whole Theory and practice of Government. They will not Suffer themselves to be governed. They not only exert all their own Subtilty Industry and courage, but they employ the Commonalty, to knock to pieces every Plan and Model that the most honest Architects in Legislation can invent to keep them within bounds.”

Jefferson was very sanguine on this point. His optimism toward the benefits bestowed by natural aristocracy was almost Candide-like. Similar to Plato and Aristotle, Adams thought aristocracy could only be curtailed through mixed government, via a careful balancing of the powers. Jefferson, a democrat at heart, believed it the “best remedy” to “leave to the citizens the free election and separation of the [natural] aristoi from the [artificial] pseudo-aristoi, of the wheat from the chaff.” He genuinely thought the people could (and would) “elect the real good and wise.” Doubtless, “in some instances, wealth may corrupt, and birth blind them; but not to a sufficient degree to endanger the society.”

Foolish, thought Adams, and to Jefferson, he replied: “Your distinction between natural and artificial Aristocracy does not appear to me well founded.” Adams did not believe there was any real difference between the natural and the artificial kinds of aristocracy, seeing as it was the wealth accumulated by means of natural differences that ultimately installed the offspring of ambitious men as inheritors of Old Money. Indeed, “the Heir to honours and Riches, and power has often no more merit in procuring these Advantages, than he has in obtaining an handsome face or an elegant figure.”

Both men might have abhorred “hereditary honours,” but what ultimately divided them was a matter of basic attitude. Adams once summarized it many years earlier: “You are afraid of the one—I, of the few…You are Apprehensive of Monarchy; I, of Aristocracy.” The United States (and much of the West besides) never managed to evolve beyond this subterranean quarrel. Even to this day, the issues raised there remain unresolved.

Natural Aristocracy and the Cult of Individualism

Jefferson said: “The natural aristocracy I consider as the most precious gift of nature.” And he wondered whether we may “not even say that that form of government is the best which provides the most effectually for a pure selection of these natural aristoi into the offices of government.” Adams contended that pure selection would remain spurious, so long as there was “no Remedy against irresistible Corruption in Elections to Offices of great Power and Profit.”

The actual development of liberal nations has largely ignored whatever doubts were raised by Adams. Following Jefferson, the notion of a natural aristocracy became deeply embedded in the fabric of modern society. As this happened, the matter of aristocracy itself became slowly obfuscated. Today, we no longer even use the word. Instead, we speak of “meritocracy” and “individualism.”

It was John Stuart Mill who crystalized this gradual transfiguration. In his classical essay On Liberty, Mill lionized the “raw material of human nature.” While most liberal principles can be traced back to the Father of Liberalism himself—the British philosopher John Locke—it was Mill who gave these principles their modern twist. In the 17th century, Locke furthered a doctrine of tolerance and freedom of expression to promote a civil climate of peace and prosperity. By the time Mill came onto the scene, the general outlines of bourgeois society had already been put into question by the (German and English) Romantics. Mill still advocated for a Harm Principle—the most bare-bones notion of civility—stating that an individual must act so as “not to make himself a nuisance to other people.” But this was largely overshadowed by a general drive towards nonconformity.

Mill was perhaps not as radical as his contemporary Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose essay on Self-Reliance elevated absolute individualism to a necessary condition of life: “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.” Nonetheless, his critique of a certain “pinched and hidebound type of human character” did not trail far behind. Specifically, Mill bemoaned a kind of “hostile and dreaded censorship” affecting all social strata of the Lockean civil state. By subjecting himself to the consent of polite society, bourgeois man remained effectively bound by the fetters of popular convention: “Even in what people do for pleasure, conformity is the first thing they think of; they like in crowds; they exercise choice only among things that are commonly done; they shun particularity of taste and eccentricity of conduct as much as they shun crimes.”

A natural aristocrat must cultivate his individuality in order to become a “well-developed human being.” Just as the scientific pursuit of knowledge requires us to “discover new truths and point out when a former truth is true no longer,” so the pursuit of happiness enjoins us to engage in progressive social experimentation. The perfectibility of human nature, a doctrine which Adams “never could understand” but to which Jefferson cleaved heartily, encourages those of “mental superiority” to “start new practices and to set the example of more enlightened conduct and of better taste and sense in human life.”

The natural aristocrats of “talent and courage” would have to bravely pioneer alternative and idiosyncratic expressions of human eccentricity. Herman Melville, another contemporary of Mill, had already warned of these emerging personalities. Like Adams, Melville mistrusted the boundless expansion of monomaniacal ambition. Chasing the white whale of pure individuality, the new Ahabs of the modern world would doubtless sink the ship of state. Also like Adams, the lessons of Moby Dick have largely been cast aside by the sweep of history. The Ahabs have generously assumed their rightful captaincy.

Contrary to what certain popular personalities of the contemporary Right would have us believe, progressivism has very little to do with base collectivism or the “madness of crowds.” It is not so much a departure from the tenets of classical liberalism as its tragic denouement. Properly understood, progressivism is the procedural self-development and self-assertion of the natural aristocracy, a force Jefferson thought could replace the old and corrupt aristocracy of land and titles, but which really became an aristocracy totally shorn of all social responsibilities.

What today is called “cancel culture” cannot be understood except against the background of an ascendant liberal aristocracy. The recent strain of censoriousness in public discourse is nothing like the censorship exercised by more traditionally authoritarian nations. Censorship is usually of a Hobbesian kind, concentrated in a strong central power. As Thomas Hobbes wrote in his Leviathan, only the central power, the sole sovereignty, is allowed “to Judge of what Opinions and Doctrines are averse, and what conducing to peace.” Cancel culture is a very different beast. Its brand of censorship is exercised not to promote peace, but to inculcate an exclusive tolerance towards expressions of liberal hyperindividuality. We refer to such exclusive tolerance by the name of “inclusivity.”

Cancel Culture, or Repressive Tolerance

The emergence of a distinctive cancel culture—or at least the idea of one—can be traced back to an essay written by Herbert Marcuse in 1965. A Marxist philosopher steeped in the critical theory of the Frankfurt School, Marcuse has become one of the key thinkers in the New Left’s intellectual canon. In an essay titled Repressive Tolerance, Marcuse argues that the “realisation of the objective of tolerance would call for intolerance toward prevailing policies, attitudes, opinions, and the extension of tolerance to policies, attitudes and opinions which are outlawed or suppressed.” The main thrust of his treatise should sound familiar to anyone remotely aware of today’s politics: Tolerance as it is traditionally practiced is to be considered regressive. It is regressive precisely in that it validates what the civil society has come to understand as normal. As such, it reflects a benighted status-quo.

Classical liberalism promotes tolerance indiscriminately in order to collectively preserve private property. In a Lockean state, anything goes. There is no concept of better or worse, and majority opinion arbitrates what is proper to polite society. As Marcuse puts it: the “pure toleration of sense and nonsense is justified by the democratic argument that nobody, neither group nor individual, is in possession of the truth and capable of defining what is right or wrong, good and bad. Therefore, all contending opinions must be submitted to ‘the people’ for its deliberation and choice.”  This is precisely what frustrated Mill when he spoke of a “hostile and dreaded censorship.” The collective priority to safeguard property fosters a stifling climate of social conformity. Such a climate does not allow the natural aristocracy, that small band of energetic nonconformists, to really break free.

According to Marcuse, the problem with the classical framework is that it holds only insofar as “the people” are a collective of rational actors. A rational actor “must have access to authentic information” and be capable of “autonomous thought.” This suggests that a rational actor should be free from any kind of “outside” influence or authority. Now, it just so happens that the Lockean rational state is defined by the individual’s subjection to the legislature, which reflects the “consent of the society.” Insofar as anyone remains influenced by elements of their society, they cannot be considered fully rational. This, of course, naturally pertains to most citizens. Only Mill’s “vigorous and independent characters” count as enlightened beings.

Open and free discourse becomes “questionable when its rationale no longer prevails, when tolerance is administered to manipulated and indoctrinated individuals who parrot, as their own, the opinions of their masters, for whom heteronomy has become autonomy.” At this point, Marcuse says, universal tolerance becomes “destructive tolerance,” because it is intolerant towards “small and powerless minorities.”

Those whom Marcuse has labelled as minorities are cast in the eternal role of the marginal religious group. They are, in his own words, “the Damned of the Earth,” much like the persecuted Christians of imperial Rome. The Damned of the Earth are those considered heretical or at least aberrant by the norms of polite, bourgeois society. They include all manner of idiosyncratic denominations, each with their own heterodox modes of expression and their own distinctive needs. What unites them all is their minority position. In a liberal society governed by the legislature, minorities must unequivocally submit to the will of the majority. Their needs are waylaid at every juncture by the amorphous mass of plebeians “for whom heteronomy has become autonomy.”

Marcuse thus lays bare a shift in the liberal consciousness, a shift from majoritarian to minoritarian concerns. Concomitant to this shift is his juxtaposition of “universal tolerance” with “liberating tolerance”, where the prior is really Locke’s original, indiscriminate tolerance, and the latter is Marcuse’s updated version of it. We should pay careful attention to the language being used here. Universal tolerance is exercised to safeguard what is universal to all members of civil society, namely, their material concerns. Liberty of expression is tolerated only to the extent that it prevents opposing parties or factions from butting heads. As such, it is practised in service of the preservation of life and possessions. Liberating tolerance, on the other hand, is exercised to safeguard liberty for its own sake. It views Locke’s universal tolerance as a driver of in-tolerance towards authentic expressions of individual liberty.

These two notions of tolerance are not so much opposed as they are successive stages in a process of radicalization. In the Marcusian sense, tolerance has become “an end in itself,” rather than a means to preserve the society at large. This radicalization was always inherent in the outlines of classical liberalism. Liberalism understands private property as a triad of “life, liberty, and possessions.” While bourgeois society subordinated the second element to the first and third, the open and free society, the progressive society, must recognize the primacy of individual liberty above the other two. Tolerance must be liberating if it is to be practiced at all.

This change in emphasis cannot but vitiate the Harm Principle. At the very least, it means we must expand our notion of harm to include an extra-material sense. As a violation of private property, harm must also pertain to matters of liberty. To preserve private liberty or to further the cause of liberty, expressions of violence will sometimes have to be tolerated. Such violence is called revolutionary violence. Forever echoing the example of Maximilien Robespierre’s Reign of Terror, revolutionary violence first came into its own as the consummation of the French Revolution. In 1793, terror became the “order of the day.” In the name of enlightened, progressive ideals, the cry went out to “to crush the enemies of the revolution…and let liberty be saved.” In practice, numerous thousands were needlessly and oftentimes ferociously killed in the name of liberation.

Liberating causes are not averse to acts of terrorism. Marcuse says as much near the end of his essay: “I believe there is a ‘natural right’ of resistance for oppressed and overpowered minorities to use extralegal means if the legal ones have proved inadequate.” In a way, this is an extraordinary admission. Locke’s civil state was instituted for the sole sake of collective preservation. The whole point was to eliminate predation and corruption from a society of men. Yet, it seems now that liberty has a wolfish aspect. As an outward confession of man’s private conscience, liberty is nothing else but the full potential of man to behave as he pleases without having to suffer repression. In fact, liberty and terrorism seem to share a deeper affinity. Indeed, the terrorist is the only truly free, truly sovereign individual. He alone is beholden to no one, responsible to no one—a king without a kingdom, a lone wolf without a pack. We would do well never to forget that one of the earliest and most radical proponents of absolute individual liberty was the aristocratic Marquis de Sade—perhaps the greatest wolf in our entire intellectual canon.

Tolerance and the liberties furthered by it are self-devouring principles. Driven to its extremes, tolerance puts every sovereign individual at odds with their fellow citizens. As Nietzsche recognized well before anyone else did, the end of modernity will not quite resemble the petrified state of civil comfort that many of us have come to expect. New avenues of ferocity and exploitation remain unexplored. Cancel culture—the systematic clearing away of authoritative resistance and ancestral memory—might help pave the way.

Liberating Tolerance and Bobo Libertinism

In the end, Locke’s (and Jefferson’s) perfectly civil society contains the seeds of its own demise. Liberating tolerance breeds sentiments of anarchy and eventually drives citizens back into a “state of nature.” This very phenomenon, while perhaps bewildering to many of the classical liberal persuasion, could, in all honesty, have been foreseen. There were many who clearly presaged the problems inherent in unbridled freedom. It is unfortunate they were cast aside so brazenly.

Consistent liberality toward the proliferation of opinions is always sure to engender egregious forms of expression. The repression of truly gross or even dangerous opinions cannot be exercised properly if it isn’t concentrated in a central power. Most people in civil societies are by and large unconcerned with higher-order problems. Per the directive of liberal secularism, their main focus is on their life and possessions, on making sure that they get by and get to enjoy the material benefits of an affluent society. In what is perhaps a cruel twist of fate, Marcuse, a Marxist, did not foresee (or had not dared to hope) that his call for liberating tolerance would appeal precisely to the so-called (bourgeois) “masters”, the natural aristocrats, whose opinions the Average Joe merely parrots.

Marcuse believed these masters to be overwhelmingly “conservative,” with a vested interest to mold the people according to their own private interests, thus maintaining the balance of (economic) power. Evidencing the usual naïveté of the modern philosopher, this observation fails to account for the inherent alignment between power and liberality. The powerful have a natural tendency to behave wolfishly. The interests furthered by liberating tolerance are precisely those of the most well-to-do—the “conservative” economic class, whose offspring dominate the key managerial positions and go to all the best schools. As argued by Rob Henderson, progressive beliefs are affordable only for the most affluent strata of the commercial republic. Such beliefs are rightly called “luxury beliefs.”

Luxury beliefs, including sexual licentiousness, recreational drug use, open-border traffic, etc. all serve the interests of the most consumptively active—those best situated to satisfy their wolfish appetites. Causes usually furthered in the name of the “Damned of the Earth” do not so much profit the actually unfortunate underclasses (the lumpenproletariat, as they are called in Marxist lore), as they do the socially aloof and highly individualistic “jet set.”

The actual transition from Marcusian theory to its implementation as practice has happened only in the past few decades. Writing around the turn of the century, David Brooks was one of the first to chronicle the attempt of an alchemical fusion between two supposedly divergent lifestyles. His book titled Bobos in Paradise documents how the fiscally liberated bourgeois and the socially liberated bohemian came to overlap in the new figure of the bobo—the capitalist hippie. It was only during the 1990s that this unholy alliance became politically embedded. Through the efforts of Clintonites in the US and Blairites in the UK, the so-called Third Way (the tertium quid in alchemical terms) gave wide-spread legitimacy to the champagne socialist. As a result, old-school 18th century libertinism was finally brought into the mainstream. Cancel culture is no more than its consolidation as hegemony.

All throughout history, libertinism has been a mainstay of aristocracies in decline. What is truly astonishing about our current political climate is that we are failing to recognize this. Because liberal thought has sanctified freedom, any kind of challenge to individual liberty is considered backwards, closed-minded, or even bigoted. As a consequence, aristocratic libertinism has been recast as a subversive, anti-establishment leaning in favor of social justice. In a move worthy of Houdini, what used to be considered antisocial, self-indulgent behavior has become better known as an expression of progressive values. People espousing such values are now widely championed as taking a brave stance against the oppressive status quo of bourgeois society, when really, they are just an incarnation of its most vulgar tendencies.

Positive Rather Than Negative Liberty

Marcusian cancel culture and libertinism are two sides of the same coin. Together they lead to a society that is paradoxically both freer and more restrictive. The ways society becomes freer skew towards (opinions in favor of and expressions of) consumptive libertinism, while the ways it becomes more restrictive are usually aimed at (any remaining) socially conservative roadblocks. Marcuse summarizes the situation as follows: “Liberating tolerance… would mean intolerance against movements from the Right and toleration of movements from the Left. As to the scope of this tolerance and intolerance: …it would extend to the stage of action as well as of discussion and propaganda, of deed as well as of word.” With the way cancel culture has been ramping up these past few years—its most emblematic aspect perhaps being the defacing and tearing down of public statues—it is almost eerie to see how open and honest Marcuse was about his intentions, and how real of an impact his ideas have had.

I believe this whole situation has become untenable. The repressive atmosphere created by “liberating tolerance” is one that is deeply polarizing. It has fostered a profound disconnect between rich and poor, between urbanites and rural dwellers, increasingly even between children and their parents, and is reflected everywhere in the political landscape. Moreover, it stimulates behavior that is socially autistic, evidencing an increasingly careless and disdainful attitude in the upper echelons of the affluent society.

Perhaps even more worrisome are the gut-reactive responses fostered by such a toxic environment. In an entirely unsurprising way, what is often derogatorily called populism by the mediatic caste is really a crude, Hobbesian counterbalance to a classical liberalism gone haywire. Liberating tolerance is tempered with crude forms of autocratic intolerance. Blustering strongmen are elected to the executive positions of government to counteract a bloated legislature. The shadow of monarchical absolutism rears its head.

As Adams once explained: “The everlasting Envies, Jealousies, Rivalries and quarrels among [the aristocrats], their cruel rapacities upon the poor ignorant People their followers, compel these to Set up Cæsar, a Demagogue to be a Monarch and Master, pour mettre chacun a sa place. Here you have the origin of all artificial Aristocracy, which is the origin of all Monarchy.” Of course, the difference in our own age is that the aristocrats, like the would-be monarchs, rule by popular mandate; they are being elected by the people, who are themselves too politically inarticulate to translate their misgivings into effective democratic action.

To leave this sorry situation behind us, we must do the work of the electorate for them. This means, first of all, charting an alternative course. The options currently before us are reprehensible. We should no longer deign to tolerate them. The truth is that as much as Left and Right viscerally oppose one another, they are united by a common definition of liberty that is at the root of their antagonism.

In his Two Concepts of Liberty, Isaiah Berlin once distinguished “negative liberty” from “positive liberty.” Hobbes and Locke both hold a negative conception of liberty, a sense of liberty that signifies an absence of impediment. As Berlin put it, such freedom is merely the “degree to which no man or body of men interferes with my activity.” Negative liberty leaves people unconstrained as to the scope of their aspirations. In terms of pedagogy, we are taught at most that wealth opens up more possibilities to satisfy those aspirations. As Gordon Gekko put it: “Greed is good.”

Liberating tolerance in the progressive, Marcusian sense is dead set on maximizing negative freedom; any and all obstruction is considered tantamount to a Freudian repression of desire. Appetites must be satisfied as far as materially possible. By contrast, Hobbesian intolerance seeks to blockade avenues of negative liberty in order to suppress wolfish tendencies and thus maintain the integrity of the civil union. The problem with this approach is how deadening it is. When driven to its extremes, brute authoritarianism is far more castigating than anything we are seeing today. No one who is honest about the human condition would ever want to live in modern-day Russia, China, or—God forbid—North Korea.

To leave the current political quagmire behind us, a new “positive liberty” is required. This kind of liberty “consists in being one’s own master.” It means, rather than hedonically maximizing satisfaction, recognizing that a libertine way of life is in itself deeply unsatisfying and profoundly damaging to the integrity of communal life. Being one’s own master means self-actualizing, fulfilling a personal destiny, becoming a pillar of one’s community, living for oneself by living for others, etc. The Lockean state might have come about to safeguard private property; it isn’t fully clear that it will be able to keep doing so once most forms of civil conduct have been eroded by the libertine etiquette. To really thrive in our own communities, we need more than just Law and Order; a strong social fabric is required that encourages virtuous behaviour as much as it punishes delinquency. Civility itself cannot subsist on a purely civil way of life. Rational self-interest cannot sustain its own ends. More is required. Much more.

Michael Weyns is a Ph.D. candidate at Ghent University.

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