Book Review: The Ideology of Failure by Stephen Pax Leonard
Alex Illingworth offers up his latest review of ‘The Ideology of Failure’, a book published by Stephen Pax Leonard. Described by Alex as “a highly original approach to the modern European condition”, The Ideology of Failure offers an analysis of the defining features of the West that are being lost through both an academic and empirical standpoint.
Stephen P. Leonard, The Ideology of Failure: how Europe bought into ideas that will weaken and divide it. London: Arktos Media Ltd., 2018. Pp. xxi + 262. Price £18.00 (pb.); £7.79 (ebook).
It has come to be expected of the academic community by many on the Right of modern politics for its members to be, if not actively hostile to conservatism, at least unwilling to positively engage with its ideas and concerns in our age of political polarisation, social anomie and multicultural confusion. There is, however, no such unwillingness from Dr. Leonard. It is most refreshing to see an academic not only tackling the political demands of our troubled modernity head on, but also openly adopting the label of ‘conservative’ in doing so.
This offering, The Ideology of Failure, is in fact a substantially revised edition of Leonard’s previous political volume Travels in Cultural Nihilism, and the development of ideas presented in the first edition is most welcome. Any scepticism a reader might initially feel about the melding of Leonard’s natural expertise (he is, by trade, a linguist and ethnographer) and the realm of politics is quickly dispelled by the immense erudition demonstrated by the text; with a wide array of political philosophies considered from Plato to Žižek, no one can accuse Leonard of charging headfirst into a new area of study unprepared.
Leonard’s project is to understand our contemporary social and intellectual decay from the perspective of the Nietzschean understanding of nihilism (p.1). This is achieved through a series of case studies based on Leonard’s own experience travelling and living in various countries, all of which make for edifying reading. I could not help but find the case of Sweden to be the most interesting, not to mention the most worrying. Leonard pinpoints the moment of divergence at which Sweden broke from the structures of authority, tradition, and cultural homogeneity which, he argues, has been rejected by the modern purveyors of cultural nihilism (pp.1-2), which he in turn traces to various French and German post-Marxist intellectuals from the postwar era, an intellectual faction now infamous to those on the Right. I was particularly interested to learn of the Swedish concept of Jantelagen (pp.39-40), a social code of conduct common in the Nordic states which views any deviation from established orthodoxies: individual ambition, discussion of subjects outside of what is comfortable, and indeed any out-of-the-ordinary thing, as deviant. Whilst Leonard makes clear that this concept has grown out the Swedes’ unique cultural situation, having lived under successive progressive governments since the Second World War, and never having experienced any organised system of racial inequality, one cannot help but notice the analogies to the developing situation in Europe and the United States, where a form of liberal orthodoxy is developing with similar consequences to the Jantelag.
The obvious social drawbacks of the Jantelag aside, it is in the discussion of intellectual life at the modern Academy that Leonard’s work really excels. Any conservative student will be aware of the wave of ‘New Intolerance’ that came to light in British universities with sweeping national coverage, beginning in about 2014 as a nefarious import from the United States, and persisting in some form or other until the present day. In the chapter on the freedom of speech (c. III) I was pleased to see Leonard make reference to the Greek philosophical concept of parrhesia, or, the act of frankly speaking one’s mind (p.64). Leonard systematically dismantles the paradox of liberal ideology – on the one hand purporting to be an ideology of freedom, on the other hand curtailing freedom by subjective and deliberately ambiguous social projects such as the prosecution of ‘hate speech’. I agree with Leonard that, in an ideal world, free speech supposes certain moral values and qualities which govern the exercise of ‘speaking one’s mind’, and it would perhaps have been interesting to see Leonard discuss this in a little more detail. Specifically, I could not help but feel as though Leonard’s critique of liberal censorship amounted to an attack upon liberal policies themselves (e.g. ‘diversity’ and the ever-present Jantelag-style intolerance) rather than a case for a totally free society where all speech is judged on its own merit. Given that so many thinkers of the Right are now critically examining the issue of free speech’s ‘natural limits’ in a social context, perhaps it would be interesting to hear more of Leonard’s views on this in a future edition. Nevertheless, one cannot help but feel with Leonard that the present culture of censorship and intolerance which has spread not only to the university, but into wider society as well, contradicts the best traditions of Western intellectual freedom.
Chapter VII, ‘Societies at Risk’ is also worthy of a special mention, as Leonard draws what for me appeared both a stark contrast between European and non-European ways of life and a great hope for the future of Europe. Beginning with the half-amusing, half-melancholic image of crowds of Romanians piling into churches at Easter against the backdrop of tall Soviet apartment blocks placed deliberately to hide the churches from view (p.161) I could not help but remember that, in Leonard’s own terms, whilst we in Britain and America pile with the same eagerness into shopping malls rather than church, the countries of Eastern Europe are still facing one of the largest migration crises in history. Leonard shows us that, if anything, these Eastern European countries with their Christian iconography and less-than-politically correct values have everything to lose, whilst we in the West cannot understand that same threat, having already lost our heritage to secularism and ‘the groupthink trap’ elucidated in chapter I. I particularly welcome Leonard’s re-introduction of useful terms such as the German Gemeinschaft (community, literally ‘common-ship’), which has been so banished from the vocabulary on account of Nazi guilt as to completely banish with it any meaningful discussion of what makes a community. Leonard asks us how a Gemeinschaft can exist without anything gemein (in common)? Indeed how. With the debate about the role of sharia in Muslim-majority European communities, the flight of the white working class from certain areas, increasing homelessness and poverty, and the reaction against globalism in the form of the gilet jaunes, the structure of future ‘communities’ is a much-welcome discussion.
Other chapters include a discussion of the ‘essential connections’ which define us as human beings: family, homeland, religion and so on, which we are losing in the West and which an Inuit hunter perceives more prudently than many of us here in Western countries (c. IV); an extended study of Sweden and a first-hand account of how that country’s national identity is changing forever on account of liberal censorship and uncontrollable immigration (cc. V-VI); a refreshingly unbiased account of Russia and the growing Orthodox revival which is invigorating the Slavic nations, with keen insight into the valuable spiritual concept of sobornost, or, the harmonious community (c. VIII); as well as a highly topical denunciation of the EU with some interesting contributions to the analysis of a post-Brexit world which readers may find particularly valuable with regards to recent debates (c. IX).
In the final chapter, Leonard presents some thoughts for the future. The immediate future is unclear, as Leonard identifies (p. 231), and it is pleasing to see genuine grassroots and localist movements lauded as the best means of resisting the globalist established orthodoxy. There was a time when I agreed with Leonard that the future lies in an outwardly forward-looking, ‘modern’ Europe which retains a view to its past. I am not so sure of those conclusions myself, nor do I necessarily agree that the provocative measures suggested in suppressing certain Islamic customs (pp. 239-240) will be useful in the long-term. Nevertheless, Leonard presents ideas which will contribute to contemporary debate without presenting syrupy political platitudes or relying on clichéd idealisations of the European condition.
What we have here is a highly original approach to the modern European condition, and Leonard’s diagnosis of the problems of the West, the ideology of failure itself, so to speak, cuts close to the bone in the best possible way, and given his wealth of personal experience, is unlikely to be easily refutable by those who dispute his analysis of the consequences of cultural Leftism. As a work in the tradition of moderate conservatism, steeped in common sense and a wide yet not unfocussed array of scholarship, this book will be invaluable to those seeking to better understand our present situation, caught between a political elite unsympathetic to the people of a rapidly changing Europe on one hand, and a deeply-embedded social culture of liberal orthodoxy which refuses to engage in any meaningful debate on the other.