Like many other terms, the word liberalism has been so distorted by abuse that writers who would speak about it to a popular audience must begin by clearing up some misconceptions. What is called “liberalism” in popular discourse would be more accurately described as socialism, while the agenda associated with the conservative establishment is largely indistinguishable from that of the early liberals. Whether they deem it for the better or for the worse, historians generally agree that it was the liberals who dismantled the medieval guild system, abolished restrictions on usury, and presided over the rise of capitalism.
Thomas Storck may be counted among those deeming it for the worse. Describing the liberal revolution as “Satan’s greatest success since the tempting of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden,” Storck contends that French Girondins, English Whigs, and other proto-liberals unwittingly paved the way for globalist oligarchs and totalitarian government bureaucracies. If the thesis of From Christendom to Americanism and Beyond is correct then abortion, gay “marriage,” and other modern moral crises are byproducts of the liberal “American way”—i.e., Protestant commercial culture, hyper-individualism, and the theory of laissez-faire. In celebrating the various movements which shattered the tenuous unity of medieval Christendom, argues Storck, conservative Christians reject the very ground upon which their own case rests.
Of course the Middle Ages were not perfect, and Storck concedes as much. But the fact that the medieval order suffered from shortcomings does not justify the liberal revolutionaries who demolished it:
If the Catholic city had faults, then let these be corrected as well as possible; but if they are never entirely corrected, that does not mean that the social order should be scrapped and begun over again. It is a matter of setting right, restoring, protecting. The more keenly Catholics of the past saw the defects of Christian civilization the more keenly they should have tried to correct them, but at the same time understanding that there was no magic formula that would usher in the new order. It was simply a matter of the hard work of shoring up and improving what they already had.
A great many readers would no doubt retort by pointing to oppressive kings and religious wars, but they should pause before sneering too hard at what might seem like a romantic view of the Middle Ages. The bloodiest century so far has been the 20th century—the one most ostensibly progressive—and few “absolute” monarchs ever grasped for the extraordinary and sweeping prerogatives now sought by the US government. And those who credit to liberal democracy such things as vaccines, lowered infant mortality rates, and other positive achievements of modernity may have mistaken a correlation for a cause; let us remember that not too long ago Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin were held up by some as proof that socialism was more inherently “scientific” than rival political systems.
In any event, Storck’s book is quite compelling at times, as when he asserts that “no culture exists or can exist without a set of ruling ideas.” The conclusions he draws from this principle are worth repeating:
When everything that smacks of the transcendent is eliminated from the public life of a culture, something has to take its place. In our case it is largely commerce and the ideals and ideas that commerce fosters. Moreover, the liberty that accompanies such a commercial society is a liberty whose chief effect is the dissolving of traditional ties and the destruction of traditional communities, whether that takes place because of direct attacks on the family and chastity or indirectly because of an economic system that works as a solvent in hundreds of ways: driving mothers out of the home, exploiting sex to sell products, moving families about to seek employment, or emptying rural areas of farm families.
To emphasize the conservative movement’s complicity in the culture war against what remains of Christendom, Storck quotes from a mid-1990’s Washington Post article by American Enterprise Institute president Christopher DeMuth. With satisfaction DeMuth describes how “old methods of doing things” and “established cultural values” get swept away by “the gale of creative destruction,” and then concludes by saying that “another word for that gale is progress.” Whether we agree with DeMuth or censure him is beside the point, which is that we live in very strange times when we see such an attitude characterized as conservative.
In fairness to Storck’s opponents, it should be noted that not all those who use the idiom of free enterprise are so insensitive to spiritual, social, and cultural malaise as DeMuth. Considerable nuance could have been added to his case had Storck acknowledged and responded to the work of Swiss economist Wilhelm Roepke, for instance, or to Richard Weaver’s claim that private property is a metaphysical right. It is also worth wondering whether part of the problem with modernity is the compulsion to cram reality into a tidy, all-encompassing rationalist ideology which purports to have easy answers. If so, our situation may not be much remedied by exchanging liberalism for Storck’s Distributism—which is to say, one “ism” for another.
Since I am myself not especially sympathetic to finance capitalism, however, what reservations I have about Mr. Storck’s book pertain less to competing economic theories than to nationhood. It is painfully obvious that the top priority of liberals today is the securing of a politically-correct, post-national system wherein labor shuttles smoothly from country to country, regional sovereignty has been appropriated by organizations like the World Bank and EU, and anyone who shows any concern whatsoever for preserving national identity is branded a “nationalist”. As the volume under review purports to be a no-holds-barred critique of the liberal revolution, it is decidedly odd to see Storck so reticent regarding advanced liberalism’s most distinctive feature—i.e., the abolition of nations and discrediting of traditional allegiances to culture, heritage, and homeland.
Indeed, at times Storck seems to have made his peace with this aspect of the liberal project, at least. In one essay he explicitly compares the widespread establishment of Islamic communities in Europe to the invasion of the Roman Empire by barbarians—and then goes on to hint that such invasions should be welcomed. After all, although the Roman Empire collapsed under the pressures of northern tribesmen,
These barbarian nations eventually became Catholic; they entered the Church and underwent that long religious and cultural tutelage that resulted in the glories and achievements of medieval Europe. Is something like this still possible today? Surely it is if we who are Catholics return to that firmness of faith that our fathers had. Then Europeans could say to their new fellow citizens, “Forgive us for neglecting you; forgive us for not sharing with you the greatest gift we have—not prosperity, not freedom, not security—but the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the riches of the Faith, the sure way to eternal salvation.” Is this ridiculous? No more ridiculous than to sit back and watch while Christianity withers away entirely and Islam—even if its adherents become mild- mannered and tolerant Europeans—becomes the principal religion of that continent.
To establish his approach as the only alternative to watching European Christianity wither away entirely, Storck declares it useless for Englishmen, Italians, and Poles to resist the radical transformation of their countries through immigration. Europe “can never return to the comfortable monocultures of old.”
To say there are weaknesses in the preceding is an understatement. Given the experiences of the Copts and Byzantines, it is hard to see how winning the hearts and minds of the “new fellow citizens” currently pushing their way into Europe is any more realistic than reasserting national boundaries and integrity. In the days of Saint Augustine, Alfred the Great, and Jan Sobieski our fathers had greater firmness of faith, true; let it be noted, though, that this firmness of faith went hand-in-hand with a sense of duty toward their respective political communities, with an obligation to protect said communities. Such duty and obligation can hardly be set aside on behalf of some hypothetical new Christendom which may or may not someday emerge from the gales of creative destruction that have struck Paris and Cologne.
Limitations or no, From Christendom to Americanism and Beyond is extremely well-researched and ties together a variety of disciplines. It also prompts the openminded reader to question conventional notions of “left-wing” and “right-wing,” and that alone makes this book a beneficial contribution to Catholic thought. Even those who reject Storck’s views on the nature and effects of liberalism might find it worthwhile to mull over his words. As no less iconic a liberal than J.S. Mill rightly observed, we only come to understand our own position by earnestly trying to understand that of our opponents.
From Christendom to Americanism and Beyond: The Long Jagged Trail to a Postmodern Void
by Thomas Storck
Angelico Press, 2015
Paperback, 218 pages
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