Josh Hawley Resurrects the Ghost of Rousseau

In George Orwell’s Animal Farm, there is a curious moment when the reader becomes aware that the animals who led the revolt against their human overlords have not only become the new oppressors but have come to embody the ideology of their former enemies.

In Animal Farm, Orwell pinpointed a phenomenon that has occurred and reoccurred throughout the modern age, namely that once would-be liberators come to power, they quickly abandon their own principles and begin embodying the ideologies of their opponents. For a case in point, we need look no further than the popular “conservatism” throughout America in the 21st century.

In articles earlier this year (see here and here) I suggested that the fake conservatism so popular in America today bears more resemblance to Thomas Paine (the father of the modern left) than Edmund Burke (the father of the modern right). In my recent article on Russell Kirk, I noted that America’s popular conservatism largely assumes first-principles forged in the fires of progressivism. The significance of this can hardly be overstated: like the farm animals described in Orwell’s novel, America’s conservative movement has undergone a series of ideological mutations until finally collapsing into its opposite. This progression reached its zenith when red states began voting for leaders who appeal to their base specifically by repudiating traditional conservative principles. As an example, I will pick on Josh Hawley, since many increasingly consider the Missouri Senator to be the voice of the conservative movement in the post-Trump era (and if you don’t yet know about Hawley, you will be hearing A LOT about him throughout the next 20 years, and not just from me.)

To understand Josh Hawley, we need to travel back in time to the age of Enlightenment and the grandfather of leftism.

The Grandfather of the Modern Left

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)

If Thomas Paine (1737-1809) is the father of leftism, then Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) is the movement’s grandfather. A child of the French Enlightenment, Rousseau taught that human perfectibility can be achieved simply by tinkering with the external environment. Consequently, the problems facing individuals find their solution in the perfect upbringing (the basis of Rousseau parenting manual Émile), while the problems facing society find their solution in the perfect State (the basis of his political tract The Social Contract).

Rousseau’s ideas about human perfectibility, and salvation by environmental conditioning, were teleological, meaning they were oriented towards a specific idea of human flourishing. For Rousseau and his ideological child, Thomas Paine, man’s chief end is not to glorify God and enjoy Him forever, but to have our desires satisfied.

For Rousseau, the satisfaction of desire had both a personal and a political dimension. With regard to the former, because Rousseau taught that the purpose of his life is unbridled satisfaction of desire, he believed he was absolved from being good-mannered and conducted his relationships on the assumption that everyone else owed him something. With regard to the political realm, he taught that the state exists with the sole purpose of satisfying the desires of the entire population, which he personified in his concept of the General Will.

Rousseau and the “General Will”

In his 1762 book The Social Contract, Rousseau developed his theory of the General Will. His convoluted argument ran something like this:

  • The state can bring salvation and perfectibility to the masses only to the degree that it embodies “the general will” of the people.
  • True freedom and flourishing are found in the fulfilment of desire, as expressed in the General Will of the people.
  • The General Will is ultimately an expression of desire, so that “the laws are but registers of what we ourselves desire.”
  • The “General Will” serves as the ultimate source of freedom and moral values. Accordingly, government does not exist to preserve and protect obligations and mores prior to it; rather, it creates these things. As Rousseau put it, “The general will is always rightful and always tends to the public good.”

Ironically, even though Rousseau had been against monarchy, the revolutionary system he advocated gave more authority to the populace than any despot ever claimed. He granted functional deification to the state by making the General Will—from which the state derives its legitimacy and by which it makes all decisions—the final arbiter of meaning and ethics.

Of course, if statecraft is only legitimate to the degree that it fulfills the General Will, then government and society erected on any other foundation must be torn down. That is exactly what happened 30 years after Rousseau published The Social Contract, when the French overthrew their monarchs and their church to lay the foundations for a revolutionary society.

Rousseau’s revolution has been with us ever since. Armed with the Enlightenment idea that the people should be able to have their own say, and that liberty equals the rule of the people, leftism has justified the destruction of old patterns, denying the mystery of human existence in favor of utopian and utilitarian ideas about human perfectibility.

The Ghost of Rousseau is Among us, and His Name is Josh Hawley

Sen Josh Hawley

After the Reagan-Thatcher years, the conservative movement no longer had a rallying point as it had done during the Cold War. Although the movement gained some traction by aligning itself with a range of new issues—low taxes, entitlement reform, small government, the importation of democracy abroad, and various social issues of concern to the religious right—it progressively lost the intellectual integrity associated with philosophical giants like Russell Kirk and William Buckley Jr.. Instead of the masterpiece of political metaphysics, Russell Kirk’s bestseller The Conservative Mind, Fox News mediates “conservative” ideas to us in the form of entertainment. Instead of the polysyllabic erudition of William Buckley Jr., a generation is growing up watching Tucker Carlson’s oversimplifications and chronic inattentiveness to detail. What has changed in the process is not just style, as if Russell and Tucker really believe the same things but just have different ways of communicating; on the contrary, what has shifted is the actual philosophy, including metaphysics, associated with conservatism.

The fake conservatism of today adopts a radically immanent perspective bereft of the metaphysical dimensions that was so central, for example, in the first of Russell Kirk’s six principles discussed here, namely

“Belief in a transcendent order, or body of natural law, which rules society as well as conscience. Political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems…. True politics is the art of apprehending and applying the Justice which ought to prevail in a community of souls.”

Kirk recognized that a metaphysical realm—what he called “a transcendent order”—offers grounding to our notions of justice for the individual and the community. This makes meaningful the concept of public virtue, which we do not hear much talk about anymore but which has been central to political discourse from Plato through to Edmund Burke. To the degree that virtue is ultimately teleological and ontological, it has no point of contact with the anti-metaphysical metaphysics now assumed by both left and right. Republicans still know in their gut that something is wrong with the direction our country is heading, yet shorn of their intellectual and metaphysical heritage they can only grasp at watered-down platitudes, including platitudes about the General Will that originated from the pen of Rousseau.

And that, finally, brings us to Josh Hawley. In his CPAC meeting on February 26, the first-term Republican senator from Missouri raised concerns about the increasing power of Big Tech, their censorship of information, and their role in perpetuating a toxic cancel culture. This would have been the perfect opportunity to appeal to public virtue in true conservative fashion. After all, how do we even know that Big Tech is unhealthy for America except in reference to public and private virtue? In reality, Hawley entire fifteen minute speech was a rant how people shouldn’t be told what to do.

The recurring theme in Hawley’s talk was that the people have desires, and it is the job of the state to satisfy those desires. Rousseau could not have said it better. For the grandfather of leftism, there is nothing higher than the General Will, because it is from the General Will that laws derive their legitimacy and become ethically normative. Similarly, for Hawley the ultimate problem with Big Tech is that their recent power-grab goes against the General Will of most Americans who don’t want to be told what to do; therefore it is wrong.

To which I want to ask: would abortion become right if the majority of Americans believed it was okay?

Again and again, Hawley pointed out that Big Tech oligarchs are trying to control us, whereas we should be able to do what we want to do. This gives the middle finger to the rich conservative discourse on freedom (which I discussed earlier in my article on masks) by reducing liberty to little more than the right not to be told what to do. This negative and purely procedural concept of freedom ends up ignoring the real problems with Big Tech, namely that they are hastening the total erosion of private and public virtue in favor of a soft totalitarianism. At worst, Hawley’s theory of freedom aligns conservative discourse with a Rousseau-style liberalism where the will of the people becomes sacrosanct, and the true progenitor of moral imperatives.

Within the context of the personal individual, Hawley has been quick to repudiate the left’s notions of human freedom, which he rather strangely associates with the heretic Pelagius. Yet when he moves to talk about the desires of citizens in the aggregate, he seems to recognize no standard higher than “the rule of the people.” This too was a move taken by the grandfather, whose rhetoric about the General Will co-existed with moves to restrict personal choice. There is a basic philosophical problem here. If personal choice should be restricted in the interest of virtue, as Hawley seems to recognize, then why, when it comes to the general will of the population in the aggregate, is the final standard simply “we have to have our own say”? What is it about the mass will, or the hive mind, that renders it immune to critique?

See Also

Again from Hawley’s CPAC speech:

“That’s the fight of our time, to make the rule of the people an actual thing again, to restore the sovereignty of the American people. You know what? That’s always been the fight. That’s the fight of liberty. That’s been the fight of liberty since the beginning of human history….

We’re fighting for the rule of the people. We’re fighting to be able to have our own say….

What we need is a new nationalism, a new agenda to make the rule of the people real in this country, and give the people [inaudible 00:10:01] back. Give it back to them, give it back to you….

The strength is in you. The strength is in us together.”

Did you catch that? On this scheme, the government is merely a mechanism for preserving and maximizing choice, here presented as the rule of the people. Even the whole history of America is reduced to, as he put it, being “able to have our own say.” This grossly misunderstands the history of the United States, for if our founders believed in Hawley’s theory of liberty, they would have formed a democracy rather than a republic.

My friends, the litany of European horrors since the time of Rousseau has showed us what happens when a population believes they have the right to do as they please. How many more people have to die before we reject the lie that government derives its legitimacy from the general will?

Make no mistake: what Big Tech and the Woke Left are doing is wrong, but it is wrong because it violates the norms of humanity, because it is an assault on human dignity, because it is hastening a total erosion of public and private virtue, and because it is enslaving us to unvirtuous agendas. If we reach a point in our history where we welcome this enslavement because of the comforts it brings (as Rod Dreher is predicting), this would not become right merely because it aligns with the General Will.

The promise Hawley holds out to us with his polished rhetoric and his grand style is not true freedom but enslavement. I have said this before, but it is worth repeating that in the classical and Christian understanding of freedom, as expressed in conservative thinkers from Burke to Kirk, freedom is the ability to pursue the telos appropriate to an organism, whether an individual or a community. For example, a tree that is uprooted is not truly free to realize its proper end, just as a community without any laws is hindered from realizing its proper end. The ancients recognized the existence of societies structured around the fulfilment of unbridled desires, but they looked upon such communities as pre-civilized and not truly free. Within a truly free society, goodness is a shared quality that is pursued communally and protected through proper order and public virtue. A purely procedural freedom disconnected from virtue is not true freedom at all, just as Adam and Eve did not become free when they tasted from the forbidden fruit. As Joshua Hren pointed out in Touchstone Magazine.

“Freedom defined as doing whatever one desires is not freedom, but slavery—and slavery to a harsh master. And there is nothing intrinsic to modern freedom that prevents us from defining it as doing whatever one desires.”

It’s time to lay the ghost of Rousseau to rest, and to begin taking our cue from Edmund Burke.

Further Reading

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