Liberalism has increasingly been the target of criticism, worldwide. At the vanguard of this critique is a group of intellectuals known as “post-liberals” who lament radical individualism and the corrosive effects that the market economy has on communities. Matt McManus argues that while post-liberals offer some compelling critiques again liberalism, ultimately the movement poses a danger to democracy.
Since liberalism burst onto the scene as a revolutionary credo in the 17th (or 18th or 19th, depending on who is asking) century it has never wanted for one thing: critics. Many of the most famous have appeared on the political left, from Marx famously launching bromides against the exploitative alienation of “bourgeois” society, to Foucault’s denunciation of our emerging disciplinary society. But, ever since Robert Filmer felt compelled to defend the divine right of kings in De Patriarcha, and arch-Catholic Joseph de Maistre felt compelled to rail against the destructive power of Enlightenment reason, just as many have come from the political right. One of the most distinctive new critiques have come from self-described “post-liberals” insisting on “regime change” in the United States and beyond. While there is a lot in the post-liberal critique that echoes reactionary screeds past, the movement is influential and novel enough to warrant a closer look. Some of the most sophisticated and probing post-liberals offer critiques of liberalism that really do bite. They rightly highlight the effacement of community consequent to the liberal emphasis on individualism and its marketization of society. Liberals should learn from these criticisms; but they should also be wary. Through their flirtation with authoritarianism and theocracy, the most fundamentalist post-liberals represent a real threat to democracy - particularly as their ideals are taken up by the right.
Enemies of Liberalism
“Liberalism needs an enemy to maintain its sacramental dynamism. It can never rest in calm waters, basking in the day of victory; it is essential that at any given moment there should be a new battle to be fought. The good liberal should always be able to say, “We have made progress, but there is still much to do.” This is why the triumph of same-sex marriage actually happened too suddenly and too completely. Something else was needed to animate liberalism, and transgenderism has quickly filled the gap, defining new forces of reaction and thus enabling new iterations and celebrations of the Festival. And if endorsement and approval of self-described “gender identity” becomes a widely shared legal and social norm, a new frontier will be opened, and some new issue will move to the top of the public agenda, something that now seems utterly outlandish and is guaranteed to provoke fresh opposition from the cruel forces of reaction—polygamy, perhaps, or mandatory vegetarianism.”
Adrian Vermuele, “The Liturgy of Liberalism” in First Things
For the post-liberals, liberalism itself is fundamentally a nihilistic and even destructive political theology.
At the moment post-liberalism remains a fairly rarefied movement centered around a few core intellectuals and magazines. Philosophers like Patrick Deneen and constitutional theorists like Adrian Vermeuele provide a lot of its intellectual muscle, while flagship outlets like First Things Magazine provide outlets to popularize the core ideas. More recently, post-liberalism has even gained an intellectual left flank, with the mercurial Sohrab Ahmari publishing an interesting book on the perils of workplace tyranny. Whether it can translate these “high falutin” energies into practical policies – let alone a popular movement – is debatable. But they have found as somewhat receptive audience amongst younger conservative politicians like J.D Vance and Josh Hawley, suggesting it may well have an enduring future on the right.
As their name suggests post-liberals are largely defined by their opposition to liberalism. This goes all the way to its metaphysical roots in early modern thought. In Why Liberalism Failed, Deneen traces the origins of liberalism to a rejection of the older view of nature articulated by Aristotelian inflected Christians. On this outlook, nature was purposive and teleological and societies were unabashed in endorsing a common (read Catholic) morality. By contrast, since at least Francis Bacon materialists and secularists have instead insisted that nature is nothing but matter in motion. It has no higher purpose to it than servicing human desires. As Hobbes put it in Leviathan, we are material beings in a material world and what is good is what we love while what is bad is simply what we happen to dislike or hate. This rationalistic metaphysics proved the perfect bed out of which liberalism, and for that matter most species of modern progressivism, could emerge.
For the post-liberals, liberalism itself is fundamentally a nihilistic and even destructive political theology. It centers the highest aspirations of human life around hedonistic gratification, to be provided solely through market mechanisms in the case of right liberals, or some combination of the market and welfare for left-liberals. Liberalism also denies that there are higher teleological and moral purposes to which we need to submit our selves, opening the door for endless Millsian “experiments in living”: from polyamory, to queer couples, to transgenderism. For the post-liberals, all of this leads to the dissolution of the community and a feeling of spiritual emptiness which we need to overcome liberalism to restore.
What Do the Post-Liberals Want?
Until recently the post-liberals were far better at launching broadsides at the liberalism than offering constructive alternatives. At least part of this likely stems from an anxiety that people may be more receptive to critiques of our contemporary liberal order than what post-liberals want to replace it with. If true, there are good reasons for these concerns. In his most recent book, Regime Change, Deneen calls for the titular regime change by replacing our current neoliberal elite with a conservative one. These new conservative elites would establish a post-liberal state that Deneen suggests would look a lot like Victor Orban’s Hungary, Christo-nationalist in character with a particular emphasis on heterosexual family creation. But he mostly sidesteps or dismisses deep concerns about the country’s serious democratic backsliding, soft-authoritarian quashing of dissent, and racist disdain for religious and ethnic minorities.
Liberalism must once more be a political philosophy that inspires not just acceptance, but loyalty through its commitment to liberty, equality, and solidarity.
In Common Good Constitutionalism, Adrian Vermeule doesn’t so much engage in apologetics as flirt outright with authoritarian rule. With a somewhat refreshing candour, Vermeule admits that democracy isn’t in itself all that important. He rejects the idea that it has some “special privilege”, arguing that because a democracy “may or may not be oriented towards the common good”, it may or may not be “the best form of regime… the answer will depend on the circumstances.” He is bemused that conservatives should still fixate on the old originalist cherry of “judicial restraint” and calls for right-wing jurists to exercise their power to reform the country; a call which has found a receptive audience in American legal circles. The post-liberal vision is effectively an authoritarian one.
The biggest theoretical problem with post-liberalism relates back to Deneen’s initial fixation of its metaphysics. The post-liberal team is very keen of describing what they take to by the damaging moral consequences of embracing liberalism’s metaphysical core; namely its commitment to the scientific rationalism and (for many at least) materialism first expounded by Bacon and Hobbes. But this is in fact an entirely empty objection, even if it happened to be true-which it emphatically is not. Even if adopting the metaphysics of Bacon, Kant or Mill over the teleology and natural law of Aristotle and Aquinas was morally damaging that says nothing about the actual veracity of the former’s metaphysical claims. A metaphysical claim needs to be answered metaphysically, otherwise all one is left with is insisting that it would be nice if the world was otherwise.
To be fair, not all the post-liberals proposals are disconcerting. Ahmari’s compassionate concern for economic deprivation and workplace tyranny are well worth considering by liberals, particularly those sympathetic to the claim that neoliberalism in particular hasn’t contributed anything of worth and has caused a lot of damage in the decades since it became hegemonic. But thoughtful liberals can without a doubt absorb these critiques and reform without needing to throw he baby into the authoritarian bathwater. Replacing a neoliberal elite, committed to an imperfect vision democracy, with a conservative elite, which feels we can do without it, is putting the bad before the imperfect. Instead, liberals should commit themselves to ensuring that liberalism ceases to be the credo of those who say it is the worst possible political ideology except all the others. Liberalism must once more be a political philosophy that inspires not just acceptance, but loyalty through its commitment to liberty, equality, and solidarity.