“Best article I’ve read in decades.”
That’s the message I received from so many people when my article “Against Libertarian Brutalism” first appeared.
A day later, I started to receive a different message.
“This article is evil and you are evil for having written it.”
Actually, the critics didn’t quite say that in those words. Mostly the language of the article’s detractors is unprintable. If I had any doubts that my piece was necessary, the reactions, some of them give new meaning to the phrase “violent prose,” removed them all. In fact, many people said that they had no idea that brutalism was a big problem until they saw the egregious responses to my piece. Thus did the persistent and non-relevant question regarding against whom this article was written answer itself.
There was another reaction that I found amusing. It came down to: heck yeah brutalism! This reaction mostly stems from the coolness factor of the word. I can only assume that the people who said this didn’t really read the piece and hadn’t entirely understood just how precise, authentic, distorted, and fundamentally awful the brutalist worldview really is.
In general, I find the debate and frenzy to be great. A writer aspires to write a piece that achieves that.
Still, I’m still not entirely sure why the article excited such controversy. What worried me at first is that I had actually underestimated the influence of the brutalist perspective. But as I think about it, and look carefully at the opposition, it really does come down to about half a dozen people. They felt accused, from which I can only conclude that my description of the brutalist mind was more evocative than I knew.
This article began as a private study, a memo to myself, a reminder of why we are in the liberty business. We’ve all felt that need to tell the hard truth. Assert the raw and unadorned core repeatedly and dogmatically. React with righteous anger and fury, even without elaboration, to the point of being downright offensive. There is a role for this. Injustice in our midst — and there is so much of it — cries out for it.
I wouldn’t call this brutalist. I would call this righteous passion, and it is what we should feel when we look at ugly and immoral things like war, the prison state, mass surveillance, routine violations of people’s rights. The question is whether this style of argument defines us or whether we can go beyond it, not only to lash out in reaction — to dwell only in raw oppositional emotion — but also to see a broad and positive alternative.
What is the right balance? How can we cling to and rally around fundamental rights, even when the conclusions are discomforting, and, at the same time, maintain a broadness of mind to see the larger goal and dream of liberty itself?
I came to be intrigued at the analogy between a deeply distorted, but still interesting, school of architecture and certain trends and intellectual tendencies you see in the libertarian world.
It fascinates me because there are often parallels between the world of art and the world of political ideology. This was better understood in 19th century European politics, when political parties tended to rally around certain composers: in Germany, for example, whether you preferred Brahms to Wagner told you something about a person’s view of German territorial disputes.
In the case of brutalist architecture, a school of thought that lived for 20 years after 1950, we had an edgy ideology at work, one based on a truth gone mad. That truth is that a building serves a function. It exists mainly to serve that function. The brutalists believed that everything beyond that function is a distraction, an invasion, a corruption. A building should not be art. It is not marketing, it is not for human delight. It must only tell one truth and never elaborate on that one truth. Of course this view represents not only an attack on modernity but all of history. It is affected in the extreme. Even the caves had art.
That brutalist tendency can exist within politics too. You see it in every election season. Forget all subtlety, all reservation, all mental questioning: just vote for X because that will cause all wrongs to be righted. In this way politics is brutalist.
But as I read about brutalism, I couldn’t help but wonder if this tendency is alive in the libertarian world I know so well. This is why Ludwig von Mises addressed this problem at length in his 1927 book Liberalism. He was emphatic that the foundation of liberalism is private property. But he doesn’t stop there. With that comes peace, tolerance, prosperity, and the flourishing of the common good. These are foundational ideals. He says that liberalism is the only ideology that can consistently and correctly state that it is not a party, a faction, a special interest, a narrow concern, or a private bias. It genuinely believes in the whole: liberalism speaks to the destiny of humankind..
This is the spirit I sought to evoke in this piece. I recall when I first read this book, how it inspired me. Yes, it sought to defend the rights of people to do nonviolent but still ghastly things. That’s important. More than that, however, this book conjured up for me a vision of global order ruled by no one but participated in by everyone. The book has haunted me in so many ways. It was the last statement of the old liberal worldview, a glimpse of a vision that once was but could be again. It’s big, high minded, beautiful.
What if the theme of liberty becomes the slogan of sectors of life that are fundamentally anti-social? That is part of the price of liberty itself. Liberty can deal with it. But what if we take it one step further and the intellectuals who defend liberty become exclusively celebratory of such elements? What if the racists, sexists, and anti-semites become heroes in their minds because, for whatever is wrong with their view of the world, they are defying what they see as the prevailing regime? What if libertarianism becomes the great gloss to cover up the hidden desire to achieve personal power, malevolent longings, antisocial urges, and authoritarian ends? I view this as a distortion and a problem, one against which we need to steel ourselves.
The most persistent response to my piece was the demand to know about whom in particular the article was written. Of course my piece did not name names because no one fully embodies brutalism. The real point was to draw attention to a tendency or archetype that keeps rearing its head. It has done so in my own writings variously through the years — as if I had woken up on the wrong side of the bed. None of us is immune. This is the whole point of demons and ideals: not to describe perfect exemplars but to urge everyone to avoid the pitfalls and long for the best that is in our hearts.
We all need reminders of why we are in the business of studying and promoting the ideas of liberty. It is not really about hating the state, even if that is something we must do. It is not really about celebrating the rights of malevolent forces in our midst, even though they deserve a defense. Hate is not the theme. (When Murray Rothbard used to say that “hate is my muse,” he was being facetious; that man loved liberty like life itself.)
The reason to believe in liberty is actually benevolent, humble, and rooted in love: we believe in the possibilities of humanity. No state — forever freezing the world in place, presuming to know the unknowable, brutally suppressing dissent, regimenting behavior and ideas, robbing and murdering to realize its goals at the expense of society — can unleash the creative and service-oriented possibilities of the human mind. On the contrary, states, like all expression of power in society, cut off and destroy what society tries to create and self-correct.
The brutalist mind samples that of the state. It believes in its infallibility, separates the world into those who comply and those who do not, admits no error, sees no coloration, opposes all elaboration and emendation, rules through intimidation, tolerates no diversity, recoils from intellectual struggle, stamps out all uncertainty, opposes innovation, never admits error. You see this in the buildings that brutalist styling produced, and you see this in the ideological world too. You feel it when you wince at what they produce.
We need liberty for civilization to emerge, to be sustained, to improve. There is absolutely nothing brutalist about that goal. On the contrary, the longing for liberty is rooted in our most wonderful dreams for ourselves and everyone.