James Burnham on liberalism and decline

James Burnham’s Suicide of the West: An Essay on the Meaning and Destiny of Liberalism proposes the thesis that modern liberalism is the ideology of a society in decline; its doctrines motivate and justify the contraction of Western civilization and reconciles us to it.

In the chapter “Liberalism vs. Reality” Burnham observes that liberals feel uncomfortable about power and force. Liberals are reluctant to use force against  ordinary criminals (which are, after all, just “victims” of an unjust society) but feel little hesitation to use it against those who are productive and successful.

It is not that liberals, when they enter the governing class…never make use of force; unavoidably they do, sometimes to excess. But because of their ideology they are not reconciled intellectually and morally to force. They therefore tend to use it ineptly, at the wrong times and places, against the wrong targets, in the wrong amounts.

Although Burnham ends his book by considering the possibility of a reversal of modern liberalism, the section that precedes it reads as follows:

Liberalism permits Western civilization to be reconciled to dissolution; and this function its formulas will enable it to serve right through to the very end, if matters turn out that way: for even if Western civilization is wholly vanquished or altogether collapses, we or our children will be able to see that ending, by the light of the principles of liberalism, not as a final defeat, but as the transition to a new and higher order in which Mankind as a whole joins in a universal civilization that has risen above the parochial distinctions, divisions and discrimination of the past.

Liberty and oblivion

In 1991 the Libertarian Alliance published an article called “Immortality: Liberty’s Final frontier” (PDF) by David Nicholas. In this article the author argues that “the continuing fact of death renders all talk of liberty ultimately futile.” The author further argues that our concern for the future will diminish as we approach death. But instead of facing the enemy, we devise all kinds of defensive strategies.

Life extensionists often speak disparagingly of such coping mechanisms. But as argued on the Depressed Metabolism blog before, one can hardly blame people for trying to live in peace with the inevitable. Raging at the prospect of death, if no rational means can be imagined to overcome or delay it during our lifetime is foolish and unproductive. But as Herbert Marcuse said, there is a difference between accepting death and elevating it to something that gives meaning to life.

Historically, the delay between the technical ability to place a person in low subzero temperatures to avoid decomposition and its actual implementation was not excessive at all. Perhaps the biggest technical obstacle to broader acceptance of cryonics is that most people still believe that the inability of the human body to sustain itself as an integrated organism must necessarily mean the end of the person as well.

In her  dissertation “An Examination of the Bio-Philosophical Literature on the Definition and Criteria of Death: When is Dead Dead and Why Some Donation After Cardiac Death Donors are Not” Leslie Whetstine dissects traditional definitions of death and proposes an “ontological” definition of death that recognizes what is important in humans: personhood and consciousness. Such a definition of death should make us think twice before giving up on a person when technologies are available that offer the prospect of being cured and restored to good health in the future.

Overcoming death is an ambitious (perhaps too ambitious) objective to sway the general public, not in the least because it contains a strong element of wishful thinking. But spreading the “meme” that most people who currently are destined for the worms or the flames still possess the neurophysical basis of their personality at “death” might have a better chance.

But we should be careful not to present the fight against death as a fight for liberty.  Death is not a man-made imposition and should not be brought under the rubric of human freedom. It can become an issue of liberty when political mechanisms are used to prevent people to take advantage of the means that offer them a chance to postpone death and prolong life. If we present the case for life extension and experimental medical procedures such as cryonics in a thoughtful manner, such scenarios may be minimized.