Premises of Liberty: In Memoriam Kenneth Minogue (1930-2013)

A reflection on a towering nemesis to all those magnetized by the utopian lie.

Kenneth_MinoguePolitical philosopher Kenneth Minogue, emeritus professor at the London School of Economics, was one of the most influential and respected thinkers of our times. A former student of the distinguished philosopher Michael Oakeshott, Minogue was a nemesis to all those magnetized by utopian wishful thinking, the aficionados of various forms of social engineering. He wrote clearly and cogently about the urgent moral issues of our times. He did not mince his words, lambasting hypocrisy and cynicism.

Minogue was convinced that genuine liberalism is related to the tradition illustrated by such thinkers as Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, Benjamin Constant, Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill. This genealogy is the foundation of a liberal conservative perspective. Professor Minogue defended decency, moderation, and civility against the vociferous salvationist discourses and the exaltation of unlimited statist expansionism. He advocated an honest and transparent public space in which individuals can pursue freely their own ideas of happiness.

Kenneth Minogue's book "The Liberal Mind," written in the 1960s, remains an enduringly provocative interpretation of the crisis of liberal thought. His last book, published in 2010, "The Servile Mind: How Democracy Erodes the Moral Life," focused on what he defined as "the gap between political realities and their public face ."

In my own thinking I benefited immensely from Kenneth Minogue's views on ideological chimeras. His book "Alien Powers: The Pure Theory of Ideology" remains a testament for sober-mindedness and refusal of pseudo-metaphysical obscurity.  He deconstructs luminously the insidious penetration of ideological mystifications into the very fabric of political modernity:

"“Have I really been in a battle?” wondered Stendhal’s hero after many hours blundering around the field of Waterloo, and many people today share a similar perplexity. Like Stendhal’s hero, they eat and drink and sustain the business of life, but the meaning of it all depends upon their conviction of contributing to the liberation of workers, women, the colonized, or other varieties of the oppressed. Like Fabrizio del Dongo, they find a regiment and tag along—the Hussars against Patriarchy, the Dragoon Guards of the Proletariat, and so on. Quite where the real battle lies is hotly disputed, but its significance is agreed to be a final end to oppression. (...) My argument, then, is an exploration of the hypothesis that there is a pure theory of ideology, and while from one point of view it is a critique, from another it is a do-it-yourself ideology kit. It begins with some suggestions about how ideology was generated from eighteenth-century social theory. The long central section is an attempt to characterize ideologies as forms of understanding. The last section develops the view that, although ideology must take on political trappings in order to transform the world, its real character is entirely antithetical to the practice of politics. Ideology is to reality, I suggest, as (in Tolstoy’s opinion) the reports of battles are to the concrete experience of individuals in the field. In ideological moods, we think we see in social and political life those clear lines from the history books depicting the battle order of the antagonists in massed array. They have neat, clear names like bourgeois and proletarian, colonialist and national, city-dweller and producer, in a word, oppressor and oppressed. The actual reality, however, is messy. Things change all the time, and it becomes impossible to keep any clear and distinct identities in focus. Confronting the arguments of ideology, we are forced to transform the Stendhalian question: Is it really a battle that we are in?"

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