The Equality Temptation

Review: Ryzsard Legutko, ‘The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies’

Weights on scales
May 8, 2016

The distinguished Polish professor of classical thought Ryzsard Legutko’s newly translated book, The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies, is a polemical tour de force that accuses Western elites of having willfully and shamefully betrayed their intellectual tradition. His main thesis, that the increasing similarities between communism and liberal democracy are systemic, even inevitable, will undoubtedly stir controversy. No mere academic, Legutko is also a member of the European Parliament who routinely and eloquently challenges his colleagues’ well-worn liberal clichés, much to their dismay. His understanding of both political systems is, indeed, uniquely intimate. As the former editor of Solidarity’s underground philosophy journal, Legutko had long yearned for the collapse of totalitarianism, only to be deeply disappointed by the aftermath. Liberal democracy, especially in its Western European version, turned out to be neither particularly democratic nor liberal in the original, ideal sense.

In retrospect, he admits he should have realized that insofar as liberalism is an ideal, it is also utopian, since nowhere is the market completely free, nor the state nearly absent. In the same way, no nominally communist country has ever abolished all private property. But Utopia spells Ideology—the Demon’s middle name. Popularized if not actually invented by Marx, ideology, writes Legutko, assumes that people’s beliefs are determined by their socio-economic circumstances, and as such, "is a convenient tool in political conflicts: it allowed discrediting one’s opponent without entering into a substantive argument." For Marxists, it is enough to identify someone’s class for conversation to become superfluous; liberal democracies merely expanded the basis for an equally anti-rational ad hominem to include race and gender.

This is depressing, but it should not surprise, argues Legutko: "The overwhelming presence of ideology in liberal-democratic and communist societies can be easily explained. The main cause is equality, which both regimes gave a status of the highest value and made a regulating principle." Far from excluding one another, egalitarianism and despotism are, on the contrary, intimately related. For in order to make the members of society equal, "it is necessary to equip the controlling institutions with exceptional power so they can stamp out any potential threat to equality in every sector of the society and any aspect of human life."

It is hard to deny that Western democracies have long departed from the basic, formal notion of equality before the law that lies at the core of classical liberalism. Taking the next step, away from equality of opportunity to equality of outcome, opened up the slippery slope. Before long, "affirmative action" became a tool of "social justice" requiring interventions enforced by coercive state power: liberalism has been stood on its head.

The ensuing elevation of equality as the ultimate social value has all but doomed freedom of thought, artistic creativity, religious expression, as well as respect for tradition and culture, eroding these sacred pillars of civilization to the point of near extinction. Legutko is appalled by what he sees as liberal democracy’s abdication to what he considers an insidious and "powerful unifying mechanism, blurring differences between people and imposing uniformity of views, behavior, and language."

He credits both Alexis de Tocqueville and Ortega y Gasset with recognizing that democracy, its many benefits notwithstanding, has an ability to "change the whole mindset of society by depriving it of all intellectual and psychological impulses, all social habits and aspirations, however creative and valuable, that did not conform to democratic practices." The dictatorship of the proletariat may abolish classes, but the dictatorship of democracy abolishes the soul.

Such a refreshingly candid and forceful denunciation of political correctness and assorted shibboleths of Western liberalism is commendable. Yet one cannot help wondering if the disappointment at liberal democracy’s betrayal, which is quite widely shared among Central European former anticommunist dissidents, is not like the despair of a lover who discovers that the near-divine object of his passion has sinned and is thereby fated to eternal damnation.

But is liberal democracy beyond redemption? Marxism, to be sure, was always doomed by its very logic, given its simplistic equation of property with greed; the notion that state power would evaporate once no one owned anything was absurd from the get-go. Its immense appeal is due rather to the uncompromising egalitarianism of its message, easily cloaked in a humanitarian garb that effectively conceals the envy and resentment that motivates, however subconsciously, the bulk of its defenders. Liberalism, which centers mainly on freedom, still has a chance. For if protected by effective constitutional provisions, the liberal democratic system need not succumb to the Demon of equality, and may yet escape the totalitarian temptation.

Except that Legutko has in mind no ordinary Demon but the Faustian tempter Himself, whose offer of worldly happiness came at the expense of eternity. Like Faust, modern man, as Legutko sees it, sold out to the lure of technology while rejecting history and tradition—which is to say, his very soul. "The creators of modernity—Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Bacon—saw themselves as pioneers of the new who boldly turned their backs on the past" and with it, on all that is precious and true, writes Legutko. He thus believes that both communism and liberal democracy have fatally embraced the idea of progress "with all its consequences, being a natural offshoot of the power of techne."

For that Legutko blames Prometheus, whom modernity made a hero for his gift of techne, which "the ancients said, had such a powerful potential that it could make men equal to gods." So does Prometheus/Biblical serpent tempt mankind to modernity, equality, and progress. The eschatology thus complete, Legutko despairs.

But that deterministic vision is unwarranted. By no means do advances in knowledge imply the displacement of culture by technology. Modernity does not inevitably imply adopting "a cult of technology [which] translates itself into acceptance of social engineering as a proper approach to reforming society, changing human behavior, and solving existing social problems." Where Legutko is unquestionably correct is in his warning that to deny the dangerous lure of scientific advance, leading to the temptation of treating human beings as automata in order to "reform" them, thereby disregarding their fundamental spirituality, is to exile ourselves to nothingness. His book eloquently reminds us how close we are to that abyss. It deserves the widest audience.

Published under: Book reviews