The Specious Origins of Liberalism
London: Britons Publishing Group, 1967
Obscure today, but until seventy years ago a well-known and prolific author and translator, British artist and writer Anthony Ludovici is best remembered today as a proponent of aristocracy. The Specious Origins of Liberalism, published in 1967, was his last book, and while (broadly speaking) its title correctly describes its contents, this is more a case for aristocracy than a critical history of the intellectual origins of liberalism.
The earlier chapters of the book offer a critique of liberal thought; the author pours scorn on what he considers the foolish liberal belief in the natural benevolence of man, which he attributes to a lack of psychological insight. He accuses liberal philosophers of having little knowledge of human nature and, especially John Locke and William Godwin (father of Mary Shelley), of having their heads in the clouds—though some, like John Stuart Mill, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Herbert Spencer are quoted betraying certain awareness of the impracticability of their ideals.Ludovici further accuses liberal proponents of democracy of conflating the failures of the aristocracy with the failure of aristocracy, and the failures of the monarchy with the failure of monarchy. He argues that democracy is, in essence, a form of anarchy—of non-government— for the masses are generally too ignorant, too preoccupied with their own petty concerns, and too disinterested in politics, to lead and govern themselves. What liberal democrats did by abolishing the aristocracy is to abolish government, and transform politics into a vulgar popularity contest that takes place once every five years. As a result, sound, long-term decisions are never made by politicians—who, instead, are held at ransom by whatever is most popular with the mob. Worse still, the competitive and vulgar nature of democratic politics attracts the ambitious, the vain, and the unscrupulous, rather than able leaders of men and society. And as this was still not enough, the whole procedure of universal suffrage is fundamentally unfair, for it imposes on the shallow and incompetent responsibilities for which they are ill-matched, and on everyone the mindless decisions of the shallow and incompetent. Is it a surprise, then, that the policies of successive democratic governments grow ever dumber and more useless? That they address superficial symptoms rather than root causes? And that nothing is ever done until there is a major crisis, or until there is a threat to electoral prospects, and that any solutions to existing or looming problems are short-term and cosmetic?
Ludovici attributes the decline the West to the rise of liberal philosophy, a malady he recognises as indigenous to the English, and particularly strong in the Anglo-American world, that has since spread elsewhere. Liberalism, he avers, by exhausting itself on the least able and weakest, by elevating pity to a virtue out of envy for the able, had saddled the economy with a welfare state that encourages the proliferation of criminals and idle imbeciles, which in turn has led to a deterioration in human quality, physical, spiritual, and intellectual.
Ludovici’s main thesis is that while the aristocracy evidently failed, this was not due to a flaw in the aristocratic principle, but rather to the short-comings of the aristocracy, which, relying on the unsound principle of primogeniture, and lacking a proper system for fomenting human quality while purging undesirables from its ranks, became so enfeebled and degenerate as to completely discredit itself. The case of the Bourbon dynasty in France provides an apt illustration, for a brief survey of Louis XVI’s sixteen forebears reveals most of them to have been idle, stupid, and talentless, product of bad ill-assorted marriages between ‘blue-blooded’ aristocrats purloined from all over Europe, a situation that, unsurprisingly, made the king’s end during the French Revolution a foregone conclusion.
This widespread degeneracy of the European royal houses and aristocracy, says the author, gave liberals the excuse they needed to promote democracy as a solution. In doing so they conveniently overlooked instances where a monarchical / aristocratic system was maintained successfully for many centuries, such as India and China. The ancient Jews he also credits for not giving in to calls for democracy and instituting elitist policies.
Ludovici desired an aristocracy in which the aristocratic principle—the rule of the best—was actually practiced and made possible by what amounts to eugenic policies. In this he was not much different from Plato, the first eugenicist. However, he does not focus purely on biology, the way some American eugenicists did, but implied is also a focus on character. He thought there was much to learn from the feudal system of the Middle Ages, where power was tightly linked with corresponding responsibility. He also thought there was much to learn from the guild system, in which the pursuit of quality and excellence were critical for survival, rather than mere costs as is the case with the factory system in modern capitalism. He rejected the idea that the aristocracy could not regulate itself, arguing that the legal and medical professions have self-regulatory bodies that impose stiff barriers for entry and stiff penalties for malpractice—including being stricken off the profession. In Ludovici’s view, a well-run aristocracy is needed to provide quality leadership and governance and, most importantly, by virtue of good example set the Tone for the rest of society.
It follows from this that Ludovici’s conception of an aristocracy is not what we have come to associate with the term. In fact, he is emphatically against that conception, stating that the aristocratic principle is about the pursuit of intrinsic human quality, not about pageantry or wealth; one of the mistakes of the old European aristocracies was that, while they were initially conceived according to a principle of excellence—titles were bestowed to honour one who had distinguished himself through outstanding military service, for example—the trappings of aristocracy became confused with aristocracy itself, and a person came to be measured not on his worthiness but on his net worth.
This reminds one of Kevin MacDonald’s description of Judaism in A People That Shall Dwell Alone, for one of the key distinguishing features of the movement is the way in which developed eugenic policies aimed at promoting and rewarding intelligence and ingroup altruism, among other desirable traits, while discouraging mediocrity and freeloading. The most accomplished scholars, for example, have historically had greater and superior marriage opportunities than those with little accomplishment and unwanted characteristics. Also inculcated was an ethos of thinking in terms of what is good for the Jews. Evidently, this is not to say that Ludovici would have advised Western man to imitate Judaism; rather, this is to say that something like his conception of the aristocratic principle has been successfully implemented before, with enduring results. It seems evident that he would have argued for the development of an autochthonous system, rather than the copying of a foreign one.
It does not seem from his prose that Ludovici had expectations of an aristocratic system being adopted anytime soon, given that once the masses are given power, even if in reality this power is nominal, it becomes impossible to argue against their continuing to have it. One does, however, get the impression that Ludovici thought the democratic system doomed to failure in the long run.
Overall, this book presents a well-argued case. It is not, however, without flaws.
Firstly, and as already alluded in the opening paragraph, this could have been a more substantial effort if it had been, or included, a critical history of liberal philosophy, or at least a more systematic exposition. Parts of the book do deal with this, but in an unfocused, fragmentary, and superficial manner. Ludovici deals with the role of the Reformation in preparing the ground for liberal politics by delegitimising ecclesiastical authority in favour of the DIY approach to religion, and he even mentions antecedents in John Wycliffe, who directed a translation of the Bible from the Latin vulgate, but neither goes further back, nor follows through.
Secondly, Ludovici mildly conflates liberalism, socialism, and communism as if they formed a continuum, when the latter two were critiques of classical liberalism from the Left that were subsequently absorbed by liberalism to yield its modern form. True, the Left shares values with liberalism, such as a belief in equality, secularism, and progress, but the Left is still a reaction, the way fascism was a reaction against both, only from the Right. The effects of the Marxist critique of liberalism, and the subversion of liberal thought by various 20th century intellectual movements, which were instrumental in the enthronement of the most radical egalitarianism, are not mentioned at all.
Thirdly, there is a lot of repetition, the same points being made several times throughout the book. There is a sense of recycling, of padding, and of not a book not optimally organised. This is not so acute a problem as to make the book worth reading, for it is, but it detracts from it all the same.
Finally, despite containing much profitable material, a certain superficiality and tonal exasperation lends the prose the quality of a rant. In some ways this book is comparable to Charles Richet’s Idiot Man, a very amusing diatribe whose title is self-explanatory, although Ludovici’s effort is more serious and substantial, having plenty of citations and historical references.
These defects combined do not, however, negate the usefulness of Ludovici’s arguments. His articulation of an unapologetically elitist worldview, and his call to pursue quality rather than equality, is in fact, more relevant than ever before.