Breivik And The Triumph Of Liberalism

As the initial shock of Norwegian events subsides, and as those inclined toward explanations begin their reflections and assignation of blame, one more or less common theme arises.  That is, how could such an illiberal act happen in such a liberal country?  This perplexity underscores the generally shallow analysis of liberalism, both its right-conservative variant as well as its more common leftist form.  Perhaps, though, given the foundations of modern liberal society it is better for us to ask why this sort of violence didn’t happen sooner?  We wonder, however, whether Breivik's hyper-individualistic violence is not simply a logical consequence of political liberalism (both classical and modern), and if not, whether it is at least consistent with the ground inherent in a mature liberal social order. 

When discussing liberalism the question of definition arises.  Many different people think differently on the word's possible meanings.  I take liberalism to be the idea that the individual is prior to the State, and posits man divorced from traditional notions of  human nature and purposeful end, but one possessing a right or rights typically thought to be derived from nature.  Patrick Deneen, Professor of Government at Georgetown University, contrasts liberalism and classical thought:

“Liberal theory fiercely attacked [the] fundamental assumptions about human nature. Hobbes and Locke alike – for all their differences – begin by conceiving humans by nature not as parts of wholes, but as wholes apart. We are by nature “free and independent,” naturally ungoverned and even non-relational. There is no ontological reality accorded to groups of any kind...”  

Perhaps the most well known modern-day critique of the distinction can be found in the works of the late Dr. Leo Strauss.

Political and social liberalism is therefore contrasted with an earlier, mostly now abandoned traditionalism.  Traditional thinking flows from the recognition that man is primarily a social being whose nature is expressed within an organic, nurturing order.  This grounding directs the individual’s life toward a natural end, understood simply as “the good.”  The good life (the means toward the natural end) was a combination of human things and divine guidance, leading ultimately toward virtue.  Virtue could be achieved by citizens, but only through participation within a larger setting—first the family and then, on a higher level, the polis.  Together the family and the civil order (note the very important word, “order”) were co-responsible for  both propagating the race and instructing current and future citizens on their quest for virtue, the good life.  Citizens were a natural expression of a natural order sharing concrete bonds established by blood.  Shared bonds, a collective uniqueness, disassociated citizens from non-citizen aliens and all others from whom they were naturally excluded.  This “classical ideal” was most popularly expressed within the ancient Greek political tradition: the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, and the poets.  The “other” could sometimes be close, but they could never be wholly trusted, and could never assimilate properly as citizens.  For instruction we may turn to Euripides’ Medea: I am the mother of your children. Whither can I fly, since all Greece hates the barbarian? 

Western civilization understood this natural order at least up to and through the time of St. Thomas Aquinas.  Alternately, scholastic nominalism questioned the general idea of individuals participating within a real, natural whole.  If only things exist, what then is the ontological status of shared universals?  Chimera?  Also, the integral teleology within the Aristotelian-Thomistic outlook began to lose its appeal with the coming “new science.”  Whereas for Aristotle the social-political order was logically prior to the individual, by the 16th century an inversion of classical thinking was under way.  Beginning earlier with Machiavelli, next almost completed by Hobbes, but finished with Locke and Rousseau, the end of man was no longer an adequate or compelling starting ground for understanding the contemporary human condition.  Rather, the beginning became the focus.  And from an interpolated beginning it was discovered that pre-civil man was the authentic man, the primary man, albeit one existing fundamentally apart from other men. Modern man was viewed as an autonomous actor, free in all aspects of life, hindered only by the disregard of nature upon his being, and the enmity of his fellows.  Certainly modern man found himself in nature, but he possessed something undiscovered by the ancient philosophers—a natural right to whatever he desired along with a natural right to whatever he could acquire or make.  More importantly, this right existed without any prior civic obligation.  He was, in fine, the first liberal.

Liberal man’s natural right, his intrinsic freedom, was limited only by those around him, men who were disinterested in his well being, for they too were free and possessed of equivalent right.  How then to secure for himself his rights?  Liberal man understood the problem as essentially one of technique delimited only by his own reason. Understanding his isolation and his autonomy, and understanding the violence he faced from his erstwhile brothers, now themselves autonomous individuals possessed of equal right, he turned to his reason for safety in order to provide for himiself a way out.  Thus did he, and they, envision a compact grounded in reason based upon right. Government arose, but one unconcerned with either man's end or his virtue,  In exchange for ceding his own “right of nature,” the State henceforth became the legitimate and the sole protector of right.  

Yet within this contract, this artificial creation of a new liberal order, there existed a basic contradiction mostly hidden from those who then (and now) championed a new civil union comprised of free men based upon right.  Simply, individual freedom and right was henceforth to be guaranteed only by the State, for without the State’s mandate the individual, though possessing a right to all, was subject to eternal war against his fellow man.  Therefore, primal nature was abandoned, government became the sole guarantor of liberty, but most importantly it became the ultimate means for attaining what was hitherto each individual’s charge.  In effect, natural right became delimited positive right flowing from the will of an “artificial man,” the Leviathan. 

Based upon these new liberal principles, and from this non-traditional and non-natural (i.e., artificial) union, government developed in due course along the lines available to it.  Its chief feature was the liberal idea of equality.  Within the pre-civil state of nature all were necessarily equal.  For how could it be that un-equals were ever able to enter into a mutual, just, and non-coercive contract?  At first equality was simple, and rather nostalgically based upon a limited but eventually untenable classical consideration—the equality of the citizen before the Law.  It was grounded upon a loose notion of right as it existed in the pre-civil union, that is upon the equal right of nature—the right of all to life, liberty, and property, as Mr. Locke would tell us.  This nascent equality could never be logically constrained within a laissez-faire society that was, itself, more often akin to the state of nature than not.  And inasmuch as the State became the ground for both the legal establishment and the maintenance of liberty (the liberal order), it was therefore only “natural” that within this artificial entity the equality of right once existing in nature be expanded to those who, at first blush, were unequal in actual fact (if not so in the legal sense).  

Too, the introduction of the new epistemology and coterminous psychology, then novel but now dogma, that man’s equality flows from the fact that at birth he is a blank slate, led to the necessary conclusion that de-facto expressions of inequality must be based upon a contingency, and not due to factors inherent within the autonomous individual.  That is, inequality must be a product of a disequilibrium within the artificial social order.  A guarantee of social equality was now viewed as a positive function of the first guarantor of liberty, the State; again it was a matter of technique to be applied.  Natural equality based upon the natural right inherent in pre-civil man, an equality somehow now deformed, could also by technique be extended to all man’s inclinations via positive State action.  Even something as basic as expressions of sexuality were viewed as no more than a matter of hyper-individualized choice (in spite of some that wanted to justify the appearance of certain deviancies on more natural, amoral biological grounds).   Finally it was recognized that within the general logical progression of liberalism, the natural rights of man could not be limited to mere citizens.  After all, within a liberal order, one where natural right is inherent in all men who are created equal, the citizen himself is simply an artificial idea, an historical construction, a by-product of the civil covenant releasing man from nature.  Therefore, in the name of universal right, equality not only could but should manifest across borders, including everyone.

Thus, from a particular strain of late scholastic thought, through Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, the liberal project can be said to have triumphed in the West.    

As cited earlier, the analysis of liberalism and its discontents can be most popularly observed within the writings of Leo Strauss.  Another, Professor Deneen, argue similarly, or from the sociological perspective of the late Robert Nisbet.  Whatever the case, it is a big question as to whether the liberal project can continue to erode the heretofore authentic natural relations of men, replacing them with more and more artificiality.  Liberalism, from Hobbes through Locke and beyond, is grounded in a conception of man that strips him of his psychological, social, and moral ground known only through consideration of his nature and final cause.  Liberalism replaces the comfort and guidance of traditional community and its commensurate civil order with an artificial, erstaz multi-cultural construct whose end tends toward social and moral anarchy on the one hand, and political totalitarianism on the other in its drive to replace virtue with equality.  

Perhaps in Breivik we see the results of psychological conflicts manifesting whenever the artificial can no longer contain the drive for a natural based political expression.  If so and in his type, the individual, the isolated liberal man, has nothing to hold on to, or orient himself with.  If one is unable to join the anarchic social order, or make peace with the totalitarian regime, then what can be expected?  Is it the frustration of a man who longs for a sense of community but is only served up something phony with which to take its place?  Within a killer's twisted thinking, and within his hyper-individualist violent actions, perhaps one can observe and begin to understand the results of tensions inherent in liberalism, both classic and modern.  


It was a little unfair for me to cite writers buried in your links; I appreciate your fair and measured response.

As for the fall of the Soviet Union, while you are correct saying relatively peaceful, having been there, it was neither peaceful nor pleasant for many, many of which were the most innocent and vulnerable of the society. While balkanization and collapse may be a path we travel, I'm hoping we don't, on the other hand, death by a thousand channels is a remote possibility. 


Thank you for the article and links, they are worth following.

I would offer one small objection, and I maintained that objection as I followed the argument thru the links, I'm not sure Classical Liberalism is as ontologically pure as the writers claim it to be.

My anonymous chicken nom de plume, Capodistrias would be a case in point. His Christian, Orthodox faith played a fundamental role in his political thinking influenced by a Neo-Platonist trend (Padua). I can see how Deneen, Strauss and McWilliams can make thier determination about Liberalism as it proceeded into the 19th century and as it eventually played out in the 20th Century, but at least in the 18th and early 19th century I think it is much more muddled concept than they might wish to admit.

@ Capo...liberalism, classic and modern

Whenever discussing these subjects, especially within the context of a shorter article, it is necessary to compress ideas, and to make certain generalizations.  One must point out 'trends' within a larger picture.  In the process, distinctions will be missed or glossed over by necessity.  Also, one must consider the ability and stylistic limitations of an author as it relates to his skill at representing, within a small space, a story spanning centuries.  With all that in mind, your critique is understood and your points cannot be argued, but only agreed with.

The unsaid question in all of this, of course, is what can be done, if anything?  If violence is one natural outcome of cultural dispossession, then one must be prepared for it.  If B.'s victims had been prepared, and armed, the outcome would have been different.  But it is the practical end of government to protect its citizens (I even hate to use that word, these days, since liberal society does not create citizens in the ancient classical sense).  One can tell that government is becoming ineffective in many ways.

At the same time, it is only through political action that violence can be avoided, if at all.  If the majority of citizens (there's that pesky C word, again) are happy with the current liberal state of affairs, then so be it.  I am not a revolutionary.  Yet from my perspective, political-social-ethnic balkanization is preferred.  If the Soviet empire could fall relatively peacefully, then who can definitively state that Western empires and governments cannot suffer a similar fate?  The present economic crisis could be a trigger, or it could just make people want to go home and watch more television.


@ Michael Presley

Having absolutely no problem with the basics of your essay, I still lack some fundamental truths about Norwegian society which I didn't find but one time in any recent write-ups about this tragedy.

Norway is a very close-knited society where foreigners are tolerated and superficially welcomed. 

The groups-feeling of the Norwegians, old Viking-style, is very strong but has been battered recently by the socialist ideological contradictions, created by their successive socialist governments. 

The macho male society of the Vikings has been brutally reversed towards a feminist society, again because of the socialist ideology, forced on them by their socialist, strong female, politicians.

While all these policies were being introduced the Norwegians had the unbelievable luck, or Thor's help, to strike the riches of the North Sea Oil bonanza.

This way we saw the rise of a socialist society with a capitalist treasury, a unicum in the Western world. It gave the socialist governments the unbelievable opportunity to pretend that the material and financial successes of Norway were due to their policies, although nothing is farther from the truth. 

The Norwegian oil bonanza was created by nature and by the joint efforts of an American and a Flemish Belgian oil company, Philips Petroleum and Petrofina, who took the risk and had the creative thinking of real pioneers.

Today that society is full of trmendous contradictions, papered over by the socialist media and policies, but occasionaly the pressure becomes too high and somebody starts flipping.

If Norway wants to avoid further tragedies of the same kind they need to look at their own society and not at the Brussels Journal.