The cult of progress: John Stuart Mill’s prison of compulsory eccentricity

I used to like John Stuart Mill. Then I actually read him.

In 2015, publishing a book about Great British Eccentrics, I needed some general quotes about the subject for the Introduction, and found that a few lines from Mill’s 1859 title On Liberty, generally regarded as the 19th century liberal philosopher’s masterpiece, fit the bill nicely.

Chapter Three of this incredibly influential work, “On Individuality, As One of the Elements of [Human] Wellbeing“, features the most famous defence of eccentricity in the English language. For Mill, eccentricity in action and opinion often went hand in hand with genius and social progress alike, as “Nothing was ever yet done which someone was not the first to do.” Therefore, Mill argued:


“In this age [i.e. the Victorian era, imagined as the height of oppressive conservative social dogma] the mere example of non-conformity, the mere refusal to bend the knee to custom, is itself a service. Precisely because the tyranny of [mainstream public] opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through that tyranny, that people should be eccentric … the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigour, and moral courage which it contained. That so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of the time.”

All of which is not necessarily untrue. I still think eccentrics can play a valuable role in any society. And yet, eccentricity can also be a bad thing too.

Just consider many of the increasingly post-gendered, post-human specimens of social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok today: all are eccentrics in their way. Although Mill could never have conceived of the specific identity politics-based delusions of today’s wilfully hyper-bizarre, hyper-online transgenderists and furries et al, he is their ultimate intellectual father nonetheless.

A diabolical liberty

What I did not realise when I cited Mill approvingly in my book was that, enamoured as he was by “experiments in living”, Mill dreamed of a world in which everyone was now an eccentric – or, to put it another way, a complete and utter freak. Ironically, in such a world, compulsory eccentricity actually becomes a new form of oppression of the constitutionally normal.

Mill famously castigated “the despotism of custom” and the received mass opinion of non-progressive proles. Yet, if the new received opinion becomes the contemporary liberal denigration of custom instead, then this becomes a new “despotism of custom” in its turn, the new “custom” being a kind of “anti-custom” and celebratory repudiation of previously prevailing social norms – i.e. State-enforced deviance-worship and mandatory cults of diversity.

Mill’s key text may have been called On Liberty, but it really should have been called On Compulsory Liberty – and compulsory liberty is no true liberty at all.

One of Mill’s most perceptive critics today is American academic Patrick J. Deneen, author of the 2018 book Why Liberalism Failed. May 2023 marks 150 years since Mill’s death, and to mark it Deneen recently published a new essay, taking his critique of Mill further.  

Deneen observes how Mill’s champions nowadays tend to be conservatives who, appalled by growing left-wing cancel culture, invoke what they presume are the prevailing sentiments of On Liberty defending eccentricity of opinion to argue the need for free speech – much as I did, when citing him in my own book. Not having then read him properly, but having heard his name endlessly invoked by free-speech advocates, I too presumed Mill was a committed advocate of plurality of opinion. It Deneen’s view, however, this is not truly so.

I remember an old quote from President Erdogan over in Turkey: “Democracy is a tram. You ride it until you arrive at your destination, then you step off.” At that point, once successfully elected, just like Erdogan himself, you can begin systematically subverting democracy to your own ends, ensuring you and your kind stay in power forever. For Deneen, this is just what Mill – who in later life did actually become a British Liberal MP – himself sought to do.

Democracy is whatever WE say it is

Mill hated “the tyranny of the majority” and thus sought to facilitate a situation of perpetual rule from above by superior new elites – i.e., people just like himself. A freethinker who mocked Christianity, who argued for tolerance of polygamy and prostitution, who was critical of marriage, and who lived for a time in a scandalous quasi-polyamorous relationship with the feminist thinker Harriet Taylor with the tacit connivance of her husband, Mill even once presciently and piously replaced the pronoun “his” with “their” in later editions of his book Principles of Political Economy.

Even by today’s standards, Mill was avant garde in his political and social opinions, therefore; like Hillary Clinton, he thought those unenlightened proles who disagreed with him not to simply hold differing opinions, but to be a “basket of deplorables”.

Read Chapter Three of On Liberty in full, and you can find Mill describing ordinary people as “ape-like”, with those of conventional morals and opinions having “no character, no more than a steam-engine has a character” – mere mindless automata, not full human beings like him at all.

Via the mere presence of eccentric individualists of his superior sort running nations, society naturally “becomes rich, diversified and animating”, Mill says, infusing it with more and more vibrant energy, “and when there is more life in the [individual human] units, there is more in the mass [i.e. the electorate as a whole] which is composed of them.”

A modern-day translation is “Diversity is our strength.”

Identity-politics ideologues today speak of dismantling oppressive norms of white, cisheteropatriarchal normativity, which, by judging people against a standard template, fit minorities into neat little boxes and so drive them towards despair. Mill likewise complains of the painful impossibility of eccentric geniuses like him successfully “fitting themselves, without hurtful compression, into any of the small number of moulds which society provides in order to save its [ordinary] members the trouble of forming their own character.” Well, such moulds have indeed by now been well and truly broken: gender is now a spectrum with approximately 12,697 or more separate entries on it, rather than a mere two as in bigoted Victorian times, for instance.

Converting the natives

Prior to entering the British parliament, Mill spent over three decades working for the East India Company, being of the opinion that “despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, providing their end be [moral] improvement” -- a bit like the Americans flying the Gay Pride flag in Afghanistan just before the Taliban returned.

As I have argued elsewhere, it is easy to view the pseudo-parliaments of today”s ruling-caste of “illiberal-liberal” politicians as the disguised contemporary domestic equivalents of East India Company forts, from which the ignorant unwashed natives of the West are to be forcibly converted to the new missionary religion of wokeness, a conceited exercise in morally superior elites colonising their own people by stealth. In the same vein Patrick Deneen writes:


“Liberty was never its [Mills’ philosophy] main object; rather, liberty was the mechanism that would transform a traditional, bottom-up social order into a top-down progressive liberal regime … Mill stated that the liberty of a progressive society constitutes a temporary, intermediary condition. “As mankind improve[s] … the number of doctrines which are no longer disputed or doubted will be constantly on the increase: and the well-being of mankind may almost be measured by the number and gravity of truths which have reached the point of being uncontested.” Those who believe that the homogeneity of [‘progressive’] viewpoint in modern institutions such as universities constitutes a betrayal of Millian principles have not been reading their Mill … progressive dominance is, in fact, the realisation of exactly the vision for society first articulated by Mill.”

Weighing the votes

Mill’s chosen method of ensuring permanent liberal hegemony was to openly rig the voting system to his own species’ advantage, via “plural voting“ in which, quite literally, Übermenschen like John would be given more votes to cast than ordinary, Untermenschen plumbers or factory hands.

His 1859 book Thoughts On Parliamentary Reform explains how the number of votes a person gets should be based on their level of educational attainment. Members of “any profession requiring a long, accurate and systematic mental cultivation” should get six votes and “mere manual labourers” only one. That way, the bad influence of the larger but dimmer mass of ill-informed oiks who might vote for the “wrong” things without really understanding what they were doing could be counteracted by the far vaster intellects of men like himself – an early anticipation of much later democratically contemptuous Remainer attitudes towards Brexiteers in the same House of Commons in which Mill himself had previously sat.

Today, our rulers are not so crude in their methods as Mill. Rather than openly giving themselves more votes than the deplorables, they instead exercise powers of “informed” veto against the popular will via their control of non-elected chambers and judicial bodies like the House of Lords, European Court of Human Rights and suchlike.

As a result, even though conservative-minded democratic majorities keep on voting for liberally inconvenient policies like the reduction of mass immigration, or the continued provision of women-only spaces, they will never end up actually getting them, as their social betters will likewise continue intervening to deem such ideas illegal under international law and so forth, thus saving the voters from their own foolish selves.

Pilgrims’ Progress

If he were still alive, what would Mill be today? An ECHR judge? A tenured Professor of Gender Studies? An advisor to Hillary Clinton? No. Instead, I think Mr Mill would in fact be a member of an obscure French UFO cult.

The Räelian Movement were founded in the 100th anniversary of Mill’s death in 1973 by an exceedingly eccentric individual named Claude Vorilhon, who claimed to have been visited by a UFO near an extinct French volcano and told he was the brother of Jesus Christ, who was not the Son of God after all, but the product of advanced alien genetic engineering technology.

Under alleged instruction from mega-brained JS Mills from another world, Vorilhon, now calling himself Räel, proclaimed that Christianity was a childish fable, and that his progressive pilgrims should henceforth grab the opportunity extended by ET science to shape their own futures in any way they saw fit, including using human cloning to become post-human life-forms enjoying immortality.

For the cult, institutions like monogamous marriage are “useless”, whilst sexuality in all its forms should be embraced – homosexuality, bisexuality, polyamory, all are encouraged under Räel. The point is to liberate the individual to experience their own chosen form of personal pleasure “without the paralysis of society’s guilt”, as Mill also wanted (although Mill himself was personally believed a high sex-drive to be a sign of idiocy).

In 2008, the Räelians actually tried to organise a “World Orgasm Day” in Israel, to bring about peace between Arab and Jew by virtue of having a mass public orgy, before organising a special conference on masturbation featuring talks by “experts … in the field”, which sounds like an insult, but for a Räelian actually isn’t.

Another avenue towards world peace, meanwhile, would be to abandon today’s “mediocracy” of universal suffrage and instead embrace Räel’s preferred political creed of “Geniocracy“, as laid out in his 2008 book, Geniocracy: Government of the People, for the People, by the Geniuses. According to Räel, most people (but not him, obviously) are far too stupid to be involved in politics; henceforth, you have to be at least 10% smarter than the average moron to be allowed to vote, and 50% brighter to be a politician. As this is the mode of exclusionary government followed by advanced alien beings, it must be right – after all, just like today’s governing technocrats, they are a far more evolved species than the rest of us, aren’t they?

Did John Stuart Mill really die 150 years ago, or was he just reincarnated decades later in the slightly more sexually liberated body of Claude Vorilhon? If so, then this just goes to show where liberalism as a creed was always destined to arrive at in the end – in a literal cult of progress.


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