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Review: “Obedience is Freedom” by Jacob Phillips

(Christian Heritage Centre at Stonyhurst)

“Denial, as Jacob Phillips deftly shows in his fascinating and staggeringly original new book Obedience is Freedom, is precisely what the liberal-left excels in, substituting for a world of limits and constraints a schizoid universe where subjectivity is all that counts.”

In a footnote to his 1861 work Considerations on Representative Government, the philosopher John Stuart Mill famously referred to the Conservatives as “the stupidest party.” Accounting for his remark to the Conservative member of parliament John Pakington, Mill explained how he “never meant to say that the Conservatives are generally stupid.” His intention, he averred, was merely to “say that stupid people are generally Conservative.”

Mill’s comment was dreadfully conceited. It was wrong then. Today, however, it could not be more untrue. If any ideology has a monopoly on ignorance, it is liberalism. More often than not, the people and parties that now embody it are custom-bound, homogenizing, insensitive to beauty, and indifferent to meaning and truth. Far from being hamstrung by a hostility to innovation and a propensity to enjoy instead of exploit, intelligence is most conspicuously present on the Right.

This is not necessarily altogether good news—witness the rise of neo-reaction and other more feral sections of the New Right—but it is a reality which liberals would do well not to deny. Denial, however, as Jacob Phillips deftly shows in his fascinating and staggeringly original new book Obedience is Freedom, is precisely what the liberal-left excels in, substituting for a world of limits and constraints a schizoid universe where subjectivity is all that counts.

With the “authorised platforms and credential system” dominated by identity politics, Phillips self-consciously places his work “outside” the ruling ideological paradigms. Invoking the “intellectual fecundity of more off-beat realms of discourse in the UK and the US” as inspiration, Obedience is Freedom is utterly unique, a work of outsider theory and dissident scholarship, that finds its closest counterpart in the philosophically-informed political interventions of the para-academic Left of the late-noughties.

Pursuing a strategy of defamiliarization (Phillips’ method, he notes, is “synaesthetic—an attempt to bring together things we cannot imagine being the same”), Phillips offers us a reactionary inversion of the capitalist realism thesis of the late Marxist cultural critic Mark Fisher. With the rise of “smooth-talking managerial speech,” a culture of profound and all-pervasive estrangement and near-universal rebellion against reality in the name of individual desire, it has become difficult to imagine an alternative to the neoliberal status quo, as Fisher suggested. Yet, eschewing Fisher’s “acid-communist” utopianism, Phillips shows us a viable route out, a road to genuine freedom, via personal and political practices such as allegiance, loyalty, deference, honor, obligation, respect, responsibility, discipline, duty, and authority—the ten sub-concepts of obedience that Phillips explores in the book.

Like Fisher, there is something of the flâneur about Phillips, a lecturer in theology at St. Mary’s University, Twickenham. The book abounds in vernacular sociology, which makes it peculiarly pleasurable to read. A work of a broadly postmodern conservatism, we are treated, for example, to short personal-tinged histories of Greenham Common, Disco Demolition Night in Chicago, and the protests against the construction of Newbury Bypass in 1995 and 1996, as well as anecdotes drawn from the author’s own life—parties in squatted buildings in Brixton, the so-called black British music scene of the 1990s, and the responsibility Phillips assumed for caring for his mother when she fell ill when he was merely sixteen.

This is, in short, a singular conservatism, and all the more compelling for that reason. For a book which rails against “mass adolescentization” there is, not surprisingly, not even the merest hint of Nietzschean infantilism here. It is the kind of book, in other words, which could challenge the hegemony of wokism, on the one hand, and nihilism, on the other. That said, while Phillips’ brand of conservatism is unfailingly intelligent and compassionate—at once elegiac and quietly hopeful, Obedience is Freedom is a deeply moving book—it is not without flaws. I will start with the strengths, which are legion.

First, Phillips is a subtle analyst-cum-advocate of natality. A herald of responsibility, he uses the history of the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, begun in 1981 under the  name “Women for Life on Earth” to protest nuclear weapons being held on British soil, to argue against current iterations of feminism fearful of “permanent, unconditional attachment like that of parent and child.” Turning mainstream contemporary assumptions on their head, “Greenham is striking today,” Phillips writes, “because many of these women went into battle precisely because they saw themselves as the handmaids of life on Earth, by virtue of being women.” Far from freedom from procreation constituting women’s liberation, the women’s bind to their infants was profoundly freeing, releasing them from the “inexorable self-centeredness” that plagues the lives of many postmodern subjects, male and female alike.

Phillips argues that “the degree to which natality is celebrated in a culture is a vital barometer of how responsible that culture is.” Here, he wavers perhaps, not in sentiment, but in failing to account for problems of overpopulation. When it comes, however, to identifying life’s meaning-conferring activities, Phillips is invariably on point.

Complaining of the entropy of modern Western civilization, a model of society so in hoc to “constant gratification and individual fulfillment that a collapse of cosmic meaning cannot rouse any resistance, only submission,” Phillips reaches for the bard of civilizational death, Michel Houellebecq. Houellebecq depicts an “uncaring tiredness,” an “overbearing mood of indifference” and numbness that permeates large sections of contemporary Western culture with its “contraceptive mentality,” transactionality, and aversion to maturation. Blaming the boomerweltanshauung for its propensity to objectify phenomena, including love, in its pursuit of total satisfaction, the solution, Phillips posits, to the postmodern era’s alienating, infantilizing, and ultimately dehumanizing practices can be found in the Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume work of autofiction, My Struggle.

Prosaic to the point of absurdity (an instance of “punitive realism” as some critics have it), Knausgaard does not surrender to a vacuous end. He finds meaning, rather, in the “unavoidable duties of everyday life: shopping, cooking, changing nappies, wanting to stay in love, caring for elders, tidying the kitchen, thinking about death, vacuuming the bedroom.” Duty is the enemy of indifference, and indifference is the enemy of life. “This is just life being lived,” Phillips writes, in typically Stoic fashion. “This is the life the depressive can no longer even imagine.”

Phillips is percipient in identifying a trajectory which moves from longing for a political satiation of desire (expectation of a worldly nirvana) to a spiritual one (the original nirvana of Eastern mysticism), both emanating from a culture which tells us “you can make of this world anything you want,” the inevitable frustration of the first step leading to the fanatical renunciation involved in the second. He is percipient, too, in recommending Aristotle’s contrasting approach of aiming merely to “exercise practical reason excellently,” always observing limits, as a more reliable route to enduring happiness.

Lamenting the impropriety of attempting to transpose “American forms of racial etiquette onto other contexts,” Phillips is at his very best—both practical and high-minded—when he advances a neo-Arnoldian solution to successful racial integration in Britain. Drawing on his own experience in the London music scene of the 1990s, what we need he argues is not more abstract Unconscious Bias training, ill-fitted to life as it is actually lived, but face-to-face encounters between people on the basis of a shared culture. Citing the “habits of respect” he and others cultivated in the multiracial milieu of the record shops of his youth, it is the sweetness and light of culture, he convincingly asserts, which is able to dispense with unwanted prejudice most effectively.

Similarly astute is Phillips critique of today’s environmentalism. Unlike environmentalists of old—the “stinkweeds” of the Battle of Newbury—movements such as the Extinction Rebellion, he observes, casually pass over the local and particular. They focus instead, almost exclusively, on the global and planetary. While Phillips may not dwell for nearly long enough on the severity of the threat posed by human induced climate change, he is undoubtedly right to claim that “the most effective way for widespread concern for the environment to impact behaviour is for that concern to lead naturally out of the sources of cohesion and belonging,” that is, “out of local cultures.” Conservation and conservatism do indeed go together.

Now for Phillips’ missteps—and here, it must be said, he does at times stagger, under the influence of too much romanticism, a healthy disgust for an arid status quo and an appetite for the organic and sublime.

The least egregious miscalculation Phillips makes is in his critique of social mobility. The death of deference, our collective inability to accept the judgement and experience of another as superior to our own, is certainly a problem. The solution, however, to the pathologically competitive psychology fostered by an ideology of meritocracy is not a return to social stasis. Equanimity is an admirable quality. But genuine freedom is not promoted by obediently cleaving to one’s inherited situation. There must be an outlet for peculiar talents. The real solution, as Phillips recognises, in part, is simply a bridging of the economic gap between classes, when to go from the bottom to the top does not require the sacrifice of self-disfigurement and rejection of one’s roots.

A more serious criticism of Phillips’ thesis relates to his view of loyalty. Now belonging, as Phillips avers, is, indeed, not “intrinsically” dangerous. If we take the French philosopher Simone Weil’s word for it—and we should—to be “rooted is perhaps the most important… need of the human soul,” a need which must accordingly be catered for. In contrast to Phillips, however, Weil also insisted that it does not follow that “collectivities are superior to human beings.” We owe them respect not because they are collectivities tout court but because they provide food for the souls of a certain number of people. For Phillips, though, something “unconditional needs to pertain to one’s cultural attachments, something primordial and visceral”.

Phillips rejects the notion of attachment advanced by Jonathan Haidt as being “conditional on the good conduct of one’s people” as not an instance of loyalty at all. For values, Phillips holds, do not trump “true loyalty,” the freedom, that is, “to stand alongside others when it goes against one’s own choosing.” Loyalty to a constitution, say, or to a traditionally liberal way of life is, on this view, merely another expression of individualism. In calling for a “deep social and cultural homogeneity”, Phillips assumes a dangerous position, impractical and not ultimately desirable either. Cultural and moral absolutism is not the answer to the vapid relativism which predominates today. The will of the individual cannot be safely dispensed with. Phillips, however, thinks it can, opening the door not only to the tyranny of the majority but to the rule of individual tyrants.

The ambition to detoxify the idea of authority is, without doubt, a good one. To say, though, that something “genuinely authoritative doesn’t need to be mediated through an interpretative lens to render it legitimate. It is lawful because it says so,” is a worrying claim, authoritarian in the pejorative sense of the word. One does not need to be an anarchist or libertarian to take umbrage with Phillips’ endorsement of submission. Human beings ought not to be like sheep, as Mill, a more moderate proponent of positive liberty, argued; for where there are sheep there are predators.

Phillips elides complexity in maintaining that, if “obedience needs to be mediated through individual choice, authority develops into the sinister realm of manipulating choices.” A healthy democracy, which is not of course what we have now, does not socialize dupes. It is a mistake, moreover, to think that self-reliance makes us selfish. It merely makes us adults, able to adhere to authority when it’s appropriate and dissent when dissent is required. Nothing ought to be seen as “self-evident,” simply because it proclaims it of itself.

If this all sounds ruthlessly negative it is because of the strength, not the weakness, of Phillips’ book. It may be doubtful that obedience, as such, is what freedom truly looks like, but what cannot be in doubt is that we ought to look afresh at concepts such as allegiance, loyalty, deference, honor, obligation, respect, responsibility, discipline, duty, and authority in ways in which Phillips often suggests we should. Nevertheless, conservatism ought to entail the continuation and correction of liberalism—an ideology prone to egomania and hubris—not its negation.

Seamus Flaherty is a historian of ideas and the author of Marx, Engels and Modern British Socialism. He contributes book reviews to a variety of other publications, including Quillette, The Critic, and The New Criterion. 

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