The surveillance state and the end of liberalism

“What tyranny will be like when it has enormous technical weapons is very hard to say, but we are clearly moving toward that,” the once controversial, now obscure, yet quite brilliant philosopher George Parkin Grant (1918-1988) commented in an interview in 1973. “I think one of the strange things about modern tyranny is that it’s not going to appear often very nasty. It’s not going to be a wild, crazy, romantic tyranny […] like national socialism [Nazism].”

“Let me say what I think the tyranny of the United States is going to be,” Grant continued, “I think it’s going to be done in a much smoother way [than Orwell’s 1984]… Orwell’s is much too violent. I think the violence will be much smoother.” It would, claimed Grant, be more like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World – a dystopian future in which free sex would not only be permitted but encouraged, and drugs (“Soma”) would be used for recreation, but independent thought made almost impossible.

We live in a consumer world, with convenience stores and generic but allegedly cool cafés on the corner of every street in every city. But we now know that billions of emails, Skype, Facebook and other – ostensibly “private” – online messages are being hoarded, and trawled for information, by the US government. That the hunt for thought crime can co-exist with calls for “marriage equality” by ostensibly liberal government officials tells us that Grant and Huxley may have been right – we can assume that we have not reached the end of history, after all, but are merely on a particular path.

But does the exposure, by Edward Snowden, of massive and ongoing surveillance by the US government reveal the end of liberalism, even if it exists in the form of “bread and circuses”? Are we in fact – as Grant suggested four decades ago – living in a post-liberal age, the demise of the modern belief system obscured by democracy, i.e., the mere act of voting? Grant might help us think through the issue. A man who admired thinkers as diverse as Marx and Nietzsche, and who contrasted ancient and modern man in his writing, as a Canadian Grant was consciously an observer, and one of the early critics, of the “American Empire,” as he saw it and called it.

Luigi Russolo, "The Revolt" 1911.

Luigi Russolo, “The Revolt” 1911.

Grant was most especially focused on and critical of the US’s culture of “homogenization,” of flattening other, non-liberal cultures and imposing at home, and increasingly abroad, a homogenous, modern system of belief (“English-speaking liberalism” as Grant called it). In foreign policy, this, today, is “neoconservatism” – manifested contemporaneously in calls to arm militias against the government of Syria, in the belief that the men killing Shi’ites are really democrats in disguise. At home, it goes under the name of “liberalism” or “progressivism.”

Although never squarely confronted, the issues probed by Grant have come to haunt even the Western mind, which has partly abandoned, at least in theory, the old liberal ideal of a humanity united through the same (i.e., Western, liberal) ideals. The progressive view is that we must “celebrate differences.” And that we are all the same. Left-wing radicals are “anti-globalist” even as they call for open borders.

Differences are reduced not, as they should be, to convictions for which people might fight or die for, and for which they find meaning and purpose in life, but in cuisine and dress and so on. The essential differences, according to the Western view, are merely what we would purchase. But cultures are more than economics and consumer choices. They are religion, law, relations between men and women, notions of honor and manhood and womanhood, and, to varying degrees, an orientation toward death (as initiation to stand before God to be judged, into a new incarnation, heaven, hell, etc.).

Life for the non-liberal society, in other words, is concerned not with pleasure – gossip columns, popular music, coffee chains, fast food, and looking cool – but with what transcends the individual.

“For the ancient man, justice is only the living out in time of a transcendent eternal model of justice,” Grant says in Philosophy in the Mass Age (1966). “Law, which is the foundation of all communities, is seen first and foremost as that supreme law which pre-exists both written laws and the state itself. The application of law is not only undertaken for its own sake, nor only for its usefulness to society, but because it mirrors the eternal law.”

This is not a position that Western man can grasp very easily. It is a different worldview. True. It can be glimpsed to a very tiny degree in the US Constitution, where men are said to be “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” though the rights themselves do not reflect an ancient worldview but the then burgeoning modern one – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Freemasonry, the semi-philosophical and semi-mystical fraternity founded in London in 1717 AD – but which still exists in the world today, including in the US – is perhaps the last remaining expression of this way of being in the West. Interestingly, though originally Christian, it has for the past century or so, brought together men of different faiths – Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, and so on – in its rituals and body. It’s early thinkers were also far ahead of the rest of society in their admiration for non-Western cultures – evidenced by early Masonic writings and some of its rituals.

Christianity, though more ancient, is yet more modern. Yet it is more or less deceased in Western Europe, and in decline in Canada and the USA, precisely because its values have been adopted into secular society.

“For a long time the death of Western Christianity was not clear,” Grant asserted forty years ago, “because [of] a kind of secular Christianity, either in liberalism, or in a certain way in Marxism, sort of kept this going. But I think both [of those] are through. [They] cannot be thought.”

This may have been a controversial statement in 1973, when Grant made it, but today it is perhaps less so. We know Marxism is dead. We may still be in denial about liberalism, but – if it means freedom of expression – it can neither exist with a massive surveillance state, the politics of silencing debate (common in Europe and to some extent in North America), nor with non-liberal, religious cultures within its borders, from traditional Buddhism to Islam, Hinduism to the “Christian Right.”  For all the lip service, modern progressive Westerners in particular don’t want their society to be based on Islamic shari’a, or even Hindu or Buddhist notion of Dharma. These, after all, would mean the creation of a more Traditional framework, a more holistic politics, and a less superficial, way of being.

“[I]t was a rather fine belief, that the end of history was to build the universal society of free and equal men; and it was [believed that it was] all these local differences that caused wars and everything like that,” Grant remarked about the liberal ideal. “I think modern liberalism went directly with modern science. They came out of the same spirit, and they went together. Now the question remains whether this universal society of free and equal men – as a goal of human striving – does it not lead directly to tyranny. That is the question: whether the consequence of this extreme homogenization is not tyranny?” … You be the judge.

Angel_headshot_smallAngel Millar is an author, blogger, and the editor of People of Shambhala.

See also:

Toward a Holistic Politics
Organic futurism: aesthetics and technique out of nature
H. G. Wells: Mysticism and Machinery
Ken Wilber’s Integrative Vision: Why We Need It