THR Web Features   /   September 3, 2021

Where the Critics of Liberalism Go Wrong

Tracing the imaginary figure haunting the postliberal imagination.

Andrew Lynn

( Don Quixote & his squire Sancho attacking a windmill. British Museum. Via Wikimedia Commons.)

Perhaps the most invigorated intellectual movements to gain steam during the Trump era occupied not the progressive left but the reactionary right. The conservative visions of Reagan, Goldwater, or Buckley have now receded into the pages of history, voicing only a whimper of protest. What stands in the wake of these older modes of conservatism is not yet fully determined, but various modes of populism, authoritarianism, nationalism, cable news antagonisms, and conspiracy-driven paranoia now contend for whatever will come next.

One stream attracting the interest of the more intellectually minded has been dubbed postliberalism. Postliberal promoters have so far populated the backchannels of the conservative and religious intelligentsia, often among marginalized faculty members at well-established universities. They write think pieces and savvy tweets, which not surprisingly have earned them a minimal foothold in the conservative landscape at large. Within this camp, one finds heady thinkers like Yoram Hazony, the newly launched economic think tank American Compass, and the various leaders of the 2019 National Conservatism conference, which pulled in Fox News personality Tucker Carlson. Closer to the academy there exists a set of scholars whose political agendas prove more difficult to parse. Here we see, in the US, political science professor Patrick Deneen and, in the United Kingdom, Anglican theologians John Milbank and Adrian Pabst, whose political thought has guided the Blue Labour movement. Postliberalism also has an openly totalitarian wing, too: Harvard Law Professor Adrian Vermeule and New York Post editor Sohrab Ahmari together scheme of dismantling their opponents’ civil liberties, silencing dissenting minorities, and reestablishing a Roman Catholic confessional state. Occupying a more complicated position is Rod Dreher, the American Conservative veteran known for his Southern-style traditionalism, who weaves together a disgruntled culture-warrior defeatism with visions of a new religious sectarianism.

Postliberals, as Matthew Rose argues in his new book A World After Liberalism, agree on little. They know something has gone wrong, and they suspect the origins of the problem date back several centuries. Mainstream conservatism and progressivism, both held captive in different ways to modern liberalism, have failed to recognize this. Postliberals are prone to point to the “deaths of despair” in communities forsaken by postindustrial capitalism, the rise of loneliness in the wake of shrinking household size, the ubiquity of activist CEOs and corporations, the failures of cosmopolitan elites, and the need for policies that protect working-class families. While generally eschewing all categories of identity politics, they pride themselves in occupying a hard-nosed “Old Left” critique of capitalism, one that praises forms of worker solidarity and stands proudly for “traditional” (generally, masculine) notions of steady work. All paths forward require cutting away the malignant tumor of liberalism that proves toxic to the wider cultural order.

Postliberals should get credit for not having their heads in the sand: Postindustrial America and its increasingly fragmented social fabric present a remarkably different setting than the America of the twentieth century. And as the recent presidential elections have demonstrated, voters have moved toward outsiders or anti-establishment leaders. Conventional political positions that gave birth to the formative party coalitions of the twentieth century have lost their appeal. But many postliberals misfire in a particularly costly manner: They serve as uncritical adherents to liberalism’s own dubious self-conception and history. Postliberals frequently find themselves parroting precisely the triumphant history told by liberalism’s leading apologists. “We live in a society and increasingly a world that has been remade in [its] image,” Patrick Deneen, tells us in his critical Why Liberalism Failed. All of our social ties, modes of relating, and political institutions have been purportedly taken captive by liberal logics. In the wake of this invasive logic, few institutions have withstood this onslaught. We are simply awash in liberalism.

From this perspective, liberalism’s own Whiggish history is easily converted into a declension narrative. Liberalism, so the story goes, liberated individuals fully from surrounding social contexts, authorities, and encroachments on autonomous will. Our social pathologies are a consequence of this Faustian emancipation: social isolation, polarization, economic inequality, consumerism, moral relativism, and many others.

That this is a truncated political imaginary is no doubt true. The liberalism of history reveals a political tradition beset by profound limits, chief among them a recurring failure to achieve either cultural hegemony or a fully coherent ideology of what liberty is. This is often misunderstood and viewed retrospectively as “bugs” in the code that merely required time to be worked out. The mid-century political theorist Louis Hartz marveled at how the American project synthesized the institution of slavery with the pure doctrine of individual rights in John Locke.

But these bugs would more accurately be described as features. Liberalism is and always has been docile, easily syncretized, slow to the draw, and generally operating in catch-up mode. Ascribing a cultural dormancy to liberal ideas may yet be overly generous: Liberal progenitors have typically locked horns with one social form deemed “illberal”—monarchical absolutism, titles of nobility, feudalism—while acting in complicity with others just as authoritative. Examples of this sort pile up. We see liberal progenitors defend freedom for colonists but not their slaves, tolerance for Protestants but not Roman Catholics, enfranchisement for men but not women, equality for whites but not minorities, property rights for settlers but not those whose land they settled.

A better history does not excuse but rather puts at the center the salient power of hierarchical, traditional, and authoritarian social relations that proved enduring within the Western liberal order. These cases have been meticulously indexed by historians such as Christopher Lasch as well as critical political theorists such as Charles W. Mills and Domenico Losurdo. They include not just the longstanding institution of slavery, but also the racialized science that perpetuated a racial caste after slavery, the persisting gentry class in the South, the ethnic enclaves and immigrant diasporas of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, global conquests of colonization and imperialism abroad, the forced resettling and resocialization of Native American populations and their children, and paternalistic control over the working class by Progressive Era reformers. Hierarchical forms of power tend to stick around far longer than liberalism’s history often remembers. And of course, remnants of these systems persist into today.

A better history then buttresses a better account of the human person. Liberalism’s political imaginary, going back to Locke’s “state of nature,” celebrates an account of individuals ascribed with certain features or rights that purportedly exist in a pre-social state. Locke’s theories sideline the role of enculturation and customs, instead championing independent reasoning as the source for crucial moral knowledge. Similarly, Thomas Paine’s political philosophy asserted that atomistic individuals possessed a “natural” existence originating in a realm of nature that precedes and transcends social relations and institutions. This metaphysic of individualism then gets mistaken as an actual account of how human societies work. Yet surprisingly, postliberals often recreate their own version of this error. Deneen laments the rise of the liberal individual who has been liberated from all “associations, and relationships, from family to church, from schools to village and community, that exerted control over behavior.” How the twenty-first century substantiated precisely the social reality conjured up by eighteenth-century natural philosophy remains an obscured part of the story.

Postliberals would be better served by returning to nineteenth-century critics—from Romantics and conservatives to radicals—who knew societies functioned far differently than the shiny, neat abstractions of liberal political theory. Karl Marx inveighed against the contractualism of his era that built from the “insipid illusions of the eighteenth century” a vision of an isolated individual thought to be a product “not of history but of nature.” Marx recognized that humans were social animals that, outside of society, would not be fully human. Sociologist Auguste Comte weighted his criticisms against the rights-based ideologies that guided the French Revolution, dismissing the “strange metaphysical notion of a state of nature” as a faulty grounding for a political theory. Comte saw such approaches as blindly adhering to faith that a “purely intellectual action” would lead to the adoption of a “a final voluntary and unanimous consent.” These thinkers joined Alexis de Tocqueville and Edmund Burke, both of whom whittled away at the abstract notions of equality that came to a head in the French Revolution. All arrived at a position most sharply articulated by Burke: Even a liberal individualism enforced by legal codes and political institutions could never escape the power of extra-political factors.

Recovering these older critiques would mean moving away from jeremiads concerning the “emancipated” individual now serving as the representative figure of our contemporary social order. But what, then, is liberalism, when rescued from its poor sociological account of the individual? Here, we can turn to the work of social theorist Norbert Elias. Elias classifies liberalism as one of the many formidable –ism’s to arise in Europe in the late eighteenth century that helped people make sense of the complex worlds they saw themselves occupying. Elias’s account highlights how liberalism represented a response to the increasing opacity of modern society: pre-scientific understandings of charismatic authority or divine beings were no longer as plausible. More people became aware of the “lengthening chains of social interdependence” that were countering any sense of localism. Many European intellectuals were also reckoning with other races and cultures for the first time.

A product of an increasingly opaque understanding of the social order, liberalism has, not surprisingly, left us with many blind spots. All of them in one way or another circle back to the flawed political imaginary promoted by liberalism and its corresponding history. Liberals have trouble reckoning with the forms of inequality and oppression that, as outlined earlier, appear to exist quite peacefully within modern “liberal” institutions, whether in policing, criminal sentencing, or conditions of incarceration. The persistence of such forms becomes difficult to square with the purportedly progressive unfolding of history that delivers greater freedom and rights to greater proportions of individuals. Even a liberal institution like public schooling in the US appears largely unmoored from any such linear development.

But a more serious blind spot is the failure to deeply reckon with illiberal—or more accurately, a-liberal—forms of social relations that appear intractable in all social orders. Early liberal theorists, when coming up against the persisting social relations mediating and shaping individuals—parent-child relationships being the classic example—chose either to ignore such relations or recast them anew as contractual relations entered into freely. Such revisionism puts on display a truncated account of cultural and social power that sharply divided the formal, coercive powers of the government from the rest of “society,” which was reduced to those parts of our social lives lacking explicit direction or centralized authority.

Postliberals may again be replicating this error. By interpreting non-governmental aspects of our lives as merely the aggregate sum of private interests and spontaneous organization, they leave only one channel for reform or social change: the coercive arm of the state. This explains postliberals’ odd associations with authoritarian-minded leaders like Viktor Orbán, William Barr, and Donald Trump, to say nothing of the renewed interest in Third Reich jurist Carl Schmitt. What unites such projects is the same apathy toward precisely those institutions or cultural forms that fell within the blind spots of liberalism’s progenitors. Postliberalism comes to embody a form of cultural criticism that ultimately does not believe in culture itself.

Overcoming these blind spots entails recovering a different political imaginary, one that, as Matthew Arnold recognized, can attend to the “inward workings” of the human experience that formal politics often neglects. We can again find insights in Elias. In several essays on the relationship between individuals and the social order, Elias challenges the Cartesian view of the human by drawing attention to the very minimal inborn drives or inherited characteristics humans possess on entering the world. They instead acquire their “personality structure” or “habitus” that renders them “not inherent or innate” but instead “very deeply habituated in us by learning through social experience from birth onward.” Elias thus turns our attention to precisely those social factors demoted by liberalism’s preferred account of social reality, factors from which no individual achieves independence. Such factors shape how individuals acquire their mode of relating to one another, maintaining peace, caring for one another, or seeking isolation.

We might then return to the imaginary figure haunting the postliberal imagination: The individual purportedly stripped bare of all cultural entrapments by liberalism, now standing naked before the state with only his or her individual rights. Critics of liberalism should agree that such a person would stand little chance of flourishing as a human. But they can also contend, following the many critics of the nineteenth century, that this individual is nothing but a fictitious character invented by political theorists enticed by natural philosophy. Indeed, anyone alert to twenty-first-century life could hardly accept the idea that the individual stands naked before the state. Even if more traditional social hierarchies like the family or the church have become attenuated, new forms of power—such as social codes, labor relations, and financial credit—shape the way that people live and work in contemporary society.

A more robust postliberalism would recapture the political imagination substantiated by the many voices of the nineteenth century that peered deeply into the social relations shaping a society. What such a postliberalism would likely find is a need for far more richly sociologically informed account of the human person and his or her inescapable interdependence upon those “entrapments” long demoted by liberalism’s apologists.