In his 1996 book, Clash of Civilizations, Harvard professor Samuel P. Huntington described how the world politics of the 21st century would be dominated by conflicts between different civilizations. Specifically, he predicted that Islamic civilization and China would seek to assert themselves on the world stage and challenge the West. In his later book, Who are We?, he anticipated that within the United States, politics would increasingly be centered around questions of cultural and national identity.
Since the transformation of Canada into a multicultural progressive state during the second half of the 20th century, the predictions made by Huntington have become the central questions facing this nation. Although to call them questions might be somewhat of a misnomer since the Canadian elite have taken a definite stance in favour of the left. Being left-wing in the 21st century means to reject the idea that Western culture should be assertive- that it is special or worth preserving.
The modern right, by contrast, has nominally taken up the challenge of defending Western values and civilization. In theory, this makes sense, as conservatism has historically been about preserving Western cultural traditions. However, the leaders of the conservative movement have taken to defending a very particular interpretation of Canadian and Western culture.
This common interpretation presents the historical trajectory of the West as moving towards greater liberty and individualism. Thus Canadian identity for modern conservative intellectuals is understood as something of a negation. The identification of Western culture with radical liberalism serves as a nominal identity whose main purpose is to occupy the space where a more fully fleshed out organic identity would normally go.
In short, the engagement of the right, and Canadians in general, with politics is presented by the conservative elites as being directed towards entrenching individualism and rejecting any form of “identity politics”.
This attitude towards politics permeates every level of political engagement by the right. For example, many libertarians will argue that government interference in the free market or people’s lives is wrong. Generally the argument will be some variation of the following: “Government exists to protect property rights, if the government itself violates property rights it is contradicting its own purpose.”
The appeals to liberal individualism as the culmination of the Western tradition can be traced back to the enlightenment philosophers themselves. In giving their account of human nature, various enlightenment philosophers tried to describe a “state of nature.” Some of the most famous examples were given by the key liberal thinkers like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau. The common thread in all of these accounts is that they view the state and society as unnatural impositions on individuals.
In each of these cases, the resulting view of the state and society is one which undermines the legitimacy of an organic social order. This attitude towards the world is one which has led to the increasingly atomized nature of our social relations. However, in the work of French philosopher Joseph DeMaistre we find a key to overcoming the total dominion which state-of-nature thinking has achieved over the Western mind.
“What is the origin of inequality among men, and is it authorized by natural law?” - Jean Jacques Rousseau
In his book, Against Rousseau, Joseph DeMaistre sought to demonstrate the incoherency of Rousseau’s philosophy, which he saw as the inspiration behind the French Revolution that had already spilled much blood. A central focus of DeMaistre’s book is a critique of Rousseau’s writings on the state of nature. In responding to Rousseau, DeMaistre produces a far superior account of the “state of nature” for human beings.
Rousseau begins his book The Social Contract by giving an account of what the state of nature prior to society would have been like. Consequently the primary method DeMaistre will use to critique Rousseau is an analysis of the facts of history.
Rousseau originally developed his theory of the state of nature in response to the question “What is the origin of inequality among men, and is it authorized by natural law?”. Therefore, De Maistre begins his critique by reframing the question. He argues that clearly the origin of inequality is society. After all, inequality requires that people live together and have some shared standards by which they can place everyone at some point in a hierarchy. Speaking of equality or inequality about individuals living in isolation is not coherent.
From this starting point DeMaistre claims that the real question we ought to ask is “What is the origin of society? And is Man social by nature?”. For DeMaistre however, both his and Rousseau’s arguments raise the question of what we mean by “nature”. He concludes that there are four meanings people can convey when using the word “nature”:
1. Divine action manifested in the universe.
2. The different subsidiary forces that shape nature: motion, time, gravity, etc.
3. The totality of parts or qualities forming by their union a system of things or an individual being.
4. The state of a thing before it is modified by human action
In his explanation, De Maistre also differentiates between “art” and “nature”. By art he means the actions of humans and animals who shape their environment according to their will. For example the art of a beaver is to build his dam. Therefore across time nature will change because it is shaped by the actions of creatures. This distinction is crucial to understanding De Maistre’s account of nature. We can take a snapshot of the world at a particular point in time and analyse it. However, De Maistre’s argument implies that nature also has a teleological aspect.
But of course if we consider humans in nature across time it is only natural that they would begin using their “art” to shape the world around them.
A thing has a telos when it is directed to a certain end. We can discover this telos by looking at the way a given thing is put together. A teleological analysis is concerned with nature across time. For example, we can know that a car is meant to drive around even if we find it parked and turned off at that particular moment. The fact the car has its various parts like wheels and a motor shows us that it is put together to achieve locomotion. In the same way, we know that an egg will eventually hatch into a chick, which will grow up to be a chicken, who will eventually reproduce to make the next generation of chickens. If a biologist were to argue that a chicken is a solid white ovoid about the size of a human’s palm, the definition would be rejected. We know that even though a chicken begins life as an egg, its very DNA is encoded to fully develop the creature into a chicken.
Consequently De Maistre rejects Rousseau’s notion of human society being an unnatural deviation from the state of nature. De Maistre asks us to consider a man living alone in nature. Living in this wild environment the man will naturally seek shelter; perhaps he’ll build a fire for warmth, maybe some weapons for hunting. Has this man now committed a deeply unnatural action? Taking into account our definition of nature such a claim is nonsense. What Rousseau is doing is taking an arbitrary point in time and calling it natural. But of course if we consider humans in nature across time it is only natural that they would begin using their “art” to shape the world around them. Considering that human beings all possess dexterous hands and large brains with the ability to reason and create it would be unnatural to expect that they wouldn’t use them. It would be like calling the flight of a bird unnatural because as a chick its wings were not developed enough to fly.
Now De Maistre is ready to answer his primary question, stating that indeed Man is social by nature: living together in society is the state of nature. One must consider Rousseau’s original proposition that the state of nature is individuals living independently of one another. In considering this individualistic natural man we must ask: who are his parents? Did he just emerge into the world fully formed? Of all living beings, humans have the longest childhood. Some species like snakes hatch from their eggs ready to strike out at their own. But humans must grow for at least a decade to reach the point where they are consistently able to live independently.
A small child needs his mother to take care of him at the very least. But of course a mother and her child living alone in the woods is not a recipe for the successful reproduction of the species. So naturally the father will remain with the mother and the child and will serve as the primary provider and protector of the family. Indeed we can see this in the sexually dimorphic constitutions of men and women. As a result of their role, men have greater strength and their bodies have adapted to be better at fighting. Moreover, the thinking of men tends to be systematic, whereas that of women tends to be empathic. What this means is that women tend to structure their thinking in terms of nurturing and protecting people they care about, especially those they perceive as being vulnerable; this, of course, lends itself perfectly to motherhood. Men tend to think in terms of more abstract systems. This type of thinking lends itself to planning, organizing and building; this thinking allows men to organize hunting and war parties.
Of course at some point this child will grow up, and in order to continue the species, he will need a wife. In order to avoid the severe genetic problems caused by inbreeding his family will need a group of other families large enough to allow their children to marry without inbreeding. The presence of more people will be a benefit because it will allow the women to work together on raising the children and the men will be able to hunt in groups.
Here by necessity we must conclude that wherever Man lived in nature, he lived amongst his tribe. Looking at the histories of the various nations in the world, and examining the isolated primitive tribes which still exist today, we can establish several facts about human nature. The first is that Man is naturally religious. In the history of every nation we find religion: even the most primitive peoples have some form of animistic spiritualism.
Related to this, we know that Man is naturally concerned with morality. In every group of people, there will be a moral code, a series of rules, whether implicit or explicit, that govern their behaviour. Without shared normativity, the members of the group would have a difficult time establishing shared goals and enforcing attitudes that benefit the group as a whole. There must also be inequality, as naturally some people will be better at fulfilling certain roles. Especially in tribal living where survival is a constant concern, the group cannot afford to ignore these natural inequalities. To ensure the group’s best chances of success the strongest and most intelligent men will naturally be the leaders in both hunting and times of war.
Indeed, De Maistre points out that Rousseau’s state of nature goes against all the historical and anthropological evidence. Rousseau describes society by saying “Men are born free, but everywhere they are in chains''. De Maistre compares the claim to saying “Sheep are born carnivorous but everywhere they eat grass”. He concludes that the idea of humans living in a pre-social state is purely imaginary.
In connection with this, De Maistre rejects the liberal idea of the social contract. He argues that society and sovereignty are born together. Any tribe of people needs some form of laws, and laws are given by a sovereign. Indeed the unity of a group of people is forged around a common centre of laws and sovereignty. To De Maistre the family is the first political unit; in each family the father is king. Indeed the available anthropological evidence shows human societies are naturally structured as patriarchies. As we move from a single family to a tribe, a patriarch, or a group of patriarchs, will take on the task of leadership within the social hierarchy.
As societies increased in size and complexity they eventually became kingdoms and empires. But the fundamentals of social organization remained. The tribal hierarchies increased in size and became more formalized. From these the state emerged. However, it retained the paternal role of defending the nation as its central mission.
Indeed, the importance of the father as the holder of authority is reflected across various civilizations. In the Roman empire there was the concept of the pater familias; in ancient China, Confucius pointed to the father-son relationship as the basis of social order. Our own Western tradition of seeing the king as the “father of the nation” reflects our tribal origins. Christian teaching is quite clear on this point. In Romans 13, Saint Paul describes the Christian view of the state thusly:
Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? Do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. - Romans 13:1-4
Here it will be useful to clarify the question of submission. A Christian must submit to his sovereign: God does not promote disorder. One must simply consider the total anarchic violence and injustice of a society where people do whatever they want, heedless of the law, to understand that in almost every case, order is better than disorder. However, there is a corollary to this principle provided by scripture when Peter and the Apostles are arrested for disobeying the government’s order not to preach about Christ:
And when they had brought them, they set them before the council: and the high priest asked them, Saying, Did not we straitly command you that ye should not teach in this name? And, behold, ye have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to bring this man's blood upon us. Then Peter and the other apostles answered and said, We ought to obey God rather than men. - Acts 5:27-29
The state does not decide what is just. It exists to act as God’s representative. Insofar as the laws of Man conflict with the law of God, all people must follow the law of God.
Relating to the question of obedience there is the question of who is a legitimate sovereign. This issue is rather complex and would require its own article to fully explain. However for the purposes of this essay we will restrict ourselves to one of Joseph De Maistre’s arguments on the matter. He argues that sovereignty is a relationship, that in order to be a sovereign one requires a subject in the same way that one requires a son to be a father. He argues that as a result of this logical contradiction the French Revolutionary Government was illegitimate. They claimed that the people were sovereign, yet by definition the people cannot be, because they have no one over whom to be sovereign.
Indeed, he argued that this formulation of popular sovereignty was a cover for the unjust domination of the country by a small group of revolutionary liberal elites. In his 1975 book, Discipline and Punish, french philosopher Michel Foucault applied a similar critique to the modern liberal-democratic state. Focault argued in his discussion of Panopticism that in the modern state, sovereignty had been replaced by domination. In this sense the modern state suffers a crisis of legitimacy because it is not grounded in any form of sovereignty established by God.
Similarly to the question of sovereignty grounded in paternalism, the importance of tribal identifications remains in all human societies all the way into the present. De Maistre criticizes Rousseau for speaking of all people as if they were one nation, when in fact he points out that there have always been a multitude of nations that developed concurrently. The basic structure of the tribe ruled by a patriarch is the state of nature for people. Any notions of individualism and liberalism cannot be made coherent, because the individual himself must always come into the world as part of his tribe, and is a product of it.
Since the enlightenment, the liberal ideology which is hegemonic in the West has pushed society in an increasingly individualistic direction. But in abandoning the strong collective tribal identities centered around the family, the church, and the nation, we have abandoned the things which made our societies coherent and strong. Unfortunately for the individualistic West, the 21st century is an age of collectivism. In our internal politics we see the collectivist left dominating the individualist right. The West as a whole must also interact with external civilizations with a strong sense of collective identity. As predicted by Samuel P. Huntington, China and the nation of Islam have manifested that trait significantly in this century.
The Islamic world has effectively put a halt to Western attempts to enforce liberalism on it. In the 20 years since the United States first began their invasions in the Middle East, local resistance movements have overcome American technological and material supremacy through zealous devotion to their cause. Moreover, substantial Islamic communities, with strong in-group identity, have been established inside every Western country via increased immigration.
China, a brutally collectivist country, has mounted an increasingly large challenge to the West economically and diplomatically through collective national effort. Through strategic manoeuvring, the Chinese have taken advantage of Western neoliberal policies by inducing Western corporations to move their manufacturing to China. Using the technological knowledge and productive capital acquired from these corporations, they established their own companies, staffed by Chinese people, to compete with the West. At the same time they built up their military capacity and diplomatic relations. China uses its increasing influence in the world to shape events in their favour. From the production of Hollywood movies, to influencing the NBA, to Chinese investors buying vast tracts of land and resources in Western countries, including key strategic areas in Canada, China is ruthless in its drive to acquire power.
All of these different groups hold different collective identities with different values. Insofar as they are able, people with a strong sense of tribal identity will try and assert their identity and values over and against those of others. As a response to this, the leaders of the right have tried to double-down on individualism as the appropriate response to the challenges of the new millennium. But individualism can never be a successful response to tribalism. Strong group identity is the natural way through which lasting societies are established. Individualism is an ideological construct that is only as solid as the paper on which it is printed.