Is It Time to Mourn Liberal Politics?

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A review of William Ophuls’s Requiem for Modern Politics (Boulder, CO: Westfield Press, 1997).

Despite the near decade and a half that has passed since its publication, this prescient book provides a fresh, if also virulent, perspective on our time. Its central argument is that embracing the central values of the Enlightenment—individualism, the separation of morals and politics, and the legitimatization of the conquest of nature—have backfired. Rather than the triumph of human virtue and achievement that can set us on the road to progress, we are on the road to a great ecological, economic, and political unraveling, the components of which Ophuls grimly but compellingly documents.

Refreshingly, and unlike much work in social science, especially mainstream economics, Ophuls draws on a familiarity with science that is contemporary and up to date. In particular, he grounds much of his argument in the first and second laws of thermodynamics. The first law is the conservation of matter and energy; while the second law states that in a closed system all things tend toward disorder and uniformity—what is called “entropy.” But as Ophuls points out, the second law also describes the process on earth in which nature captures energy, mainly sunlight, and transforms it into complex biological structures such as plants and other animals; and, of course, ourselves—over very long periods of time. And it is these living and formerly living structures (such as coal and oil) that have made the current political and social orders possible. But for Ophuls, as for georgescu-roegen, a principal founder of ecological economics, this party will inevitably end, and likely very soon.

Virtually nothing escapes the sickle of his argument. In the second chapter, “Moral Entropy,” he describes how amoral individualism destroys civil society by destroying the complex social structures on which human well being and meaning depend. It sets us on a tragic course—where what we need and value the most is remorselessly destroyed by the hubris of the person liberated and, to themselves vindicated, by the highest values of human achievement—those of the Enlightenment. In the third chapter, “Electronic Barbarism,” he writes: “the American people are no longer a democratic public, but an electronic mob that reacts to events in the media arena by ricocheting from issue to issue, personality to personality, emotion to emotion without ever really understanding or reflecting upon what it is seeing” (p. 89).

But in Requiem the problem is not just what wrong in the United States—there are deep problems with civilization itself. The process of emergence from the primitive societies characterized by, for Ophuls, as embodying “liberty, equality, and fraternity,” has been accompanied by four great ills: “the careless exploitation of nature, organized violence directed at outsiders, political or religious tyranny exerted over insiders, and gross socioeconomic inequality, if not outright slavery” (p. 97).

The Enlightenment remedy is to address the latter two ills—tyranny and inequality, by worsening the other two. The consequence has been the hasty and ruthless exploitation of nature so carefully constructed over countless eons, and the pillaging of the resources of the “lesser peoples.” Nature is not something to be respected, but a cluster of interchangeable resources to be exploited, and if they are of interest in the future to be subject to economic discounting. The original plan of global pillage was through military conquest, which led to the establishment of the European empires spread around the globe. But after World War II this bellicose endeavor gave way to the “development project” aimed, ostensibly, at assisting the “disadvantaged” in achieving the “benefits” of modern life. Yet the displacement of rural populations to vast megacities and their surrounding slums is but one instance of the destruction of life and community that followed in the wake of these “improvements.”

But did the Enlightenment project work in the county where it found most fertile soils in which to take root—the United States? One promise was that economic development would end poverty and increase equality. According to Ophuls that was a bad wager. The war against nature is accompanied by more aggression between people—even if that aggression is, to paraphrase Keynes, waged by the checkbook, not the sword. The communities that are destroyed do not even show up in the maw of economic progress measured by GNP; and resulting affluence for the beneficiaries is a source of addiction, not satisfaction. Most paradoxically the simplification of nature amounts to the destruction of the principal source of true wealth.

The other promise of the Enlightenment was that religious tyranny would be avoided, but while organized religion was displaced from the seats of political power, another religion of reason, science and control of nature and humankind alike was put in its place. While the administrative state still goes through the rituals of democracy and accountability, the overall goal is economic development, the national security state, and the pursuit of an empty concept of human well-being.

Such is the diagnosis of our conditions and prospects. What to make of it all? There is certainly room for questions. Is the picture of “primitive peoples” some romantic notion more grounded in rousseau than careful anthropology? Is the characterization of the Enlightenment balanced and cognizant of its many threads and eddies? Does life in religious and other communities of our time fit the bleak picture of isolated individuals?

Is Ophuls plea for a reconstruction of moral politics and real community even remotely conceivable in the world he has described? How should the material progress of the last centuries weigh in the balance of our assessments of the project?

These and other critical questions should be asked, but one cannot shake the feeling that this is a devastating, deeply and carefully argued assessment of our circumstances and prospects. Indeed, one is left with the question: did Ophuls carry his critique far enough? For once we connect liberal politics to thermodynamics the implications are revolutionary. The first law—the conservation of energy and matter calls into question one of the most fundamental underpinning of that politics—that there are what John Stuart Mill called “purely self-regarding acts.” Everything we do in north America has energy and material implications for the farmers in the coastal plane of Bangladesh. And the second law teaches us that the Earth’s life support capacity is finite though not fixed—so everything we do affects life’s prospects. These question lie beyond the range of the analysis undertaken by Ophuls, but they destabilize the political dimensions of the Enlightenment project far more deeply than Requiem envisions. Is there a deeper mourning still to come in this age of ecological sorrows?

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  • Peter G. Brown

    Professor Peter Brown’s teaching, research, and service are concerned with ethics, governance, and the protection of the environment. His appointments at McGill University are in the School of Environment, the Department of Geography, and the Department of Natural Resource Sciences.

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