[This article was published in The Philosophical Salon.]
In Wilhelm von Humboldt’s book The Limits of State Action (1792), one of the most thoughtful expressions of classical liberalism, these passages appear:
The true end of Man…is the highest and most harmonious development of his powers to a complete and consistent whole. Freedom is the first and indispensable condition which the possibility of such a development presupposes… Whatever does not spring from a man’s free choice, or is only the result of instruction and guidance, does not enter into his very being but still remains alien to his true nature; he does not perform it with truly human energies but merely with mechanical exactness…
[T]he principle of the true art of social intercourse consists in a ceaseless endeavor to grasp the innermost individuality of another, to avail oneself of it, and, with the deepest respect for it as the individuality of another, to act upon it… The very variety arising from the union of numbers of individuals is the highest good which social life can confer, and this variety is undoubtedly lost in proportion to the degree of State interference. Under such a system, we have not so much the individual members of a nation living united in the bonds of a civil compact, but isolated subjects living in relation to the State…
The entire book is an elaboration of these ideas. In them, we do not see a vulgar individualism, a reduction of humans to mere nodes in the cash-nexus who buy and sell to one another and need protection from each other, the kind of anti-humanism for which traditionalists and Marxists have criticized classical liberalism. We see, instead, an appreciation of the richness of every individuality; an emphasis on the human need for community, respect, friendship, and love; an anarchist critique of coercive institutions, in particular the state; a proto-Marxist theory of the alienation of labor; socialistic intimations that people have the right to control their own labor; in short, a liberal humanism of the sort that leftists of various persuasions would embellish in the following two centuries.
If one were to believe the “postliberals” who have burst onto the ideological scene in recent years, liberalism doesn’t have the moral or intellectual resources for such a mature humanism. It seems they haven’t read Humboldt.
Postliberalism has emerged in the UK and U.S. during the last ten years as a reaction against the manifest failures of what its thinkers call liberalism. The economic, social, political, and environmental crises that afflict the world they attribute to a systemic lack of regard for the “common good,” which, in turn, they attribute to a liberalism that has been horribly successful in its reduction of humans to atoms—“increasingly separate, autonomous, nonrelational selves replete with rights and defined by our liberty, but insecure, powerless, afraid, and alone.” So writes Patrick Deneen, professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, in his 2018 book Why Liberalism Failed. Other vocal postliberals include Adrian Vermeule, Sohrab Ahmari, Yoram Hazony, Adrian Pabst, Chad Pecknold, Gladden Pappin, and some other writers associated with such magazines as American Affairs, UnHerd, and Compact. For all their differences, these writers share a rejection of any one-sided fixation on liberty, whether it be that of right-wing libertarianism—the “free market” doctrine to which the Republican Party is at least rhetorically committed—or left-wing social liberalism, the liberalism of identity politics. They seek to resuscitate ideas of social obligation, duty, community, and tradition, for example in the forms of family, church, and nation. The modern understanding of liberty is unhealthily and immorally licentious; better is the ancient and Christian conception that true freedom consists in self-control, self-discipline (under the constraints of tradition and religion), rather than slavish submission to base and hedonistic appetites.
Postliberals, therefore, criticize the modern gospel of “progress” and its ideological cognates, alleged solvents of social bonds, such as “Enlightenment rationalism,” or the application of critical reason to all forms of order and authority for the sake of dismantling whatever isn’t emancipatory, liberal, or conducive to economic growth. Their perspective is reminiscent of that of the social theorist and historian Christopher Lasch, whose 1991 book The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics was an extended critique of the ideology of progress and a history of its dissenters in the United States. Preferring an honest recognition of ineluctable limits—not least ecological limits—over modern liberalism’s faith in endless economic growth, endless moral progress, and liberation from the benighted parochialism of the past, Lasch turned to the culture of the lower middle class as a more human and realistic alternative. Without denying the historical vices of this culture (“envy, resentment, and servility”), he was nevertheless impressed by “the moral conservatism of the petty bourgeoisie, its egalitarianism, its respect for workmanship, its understanding of the value of loyalty,” in general its rootedness, so different from the deracinated future-fixation—detachment from the past—of contemporary liberal elites. Postliberals share these concerns and values.
What postliberalism amounts to, then, is a rejection of dominant tendencies of modernity. Some writers are more willing than others to acknowledge the positive achievements of liberalism—for instance, in The Politics of Virtue (2016), John Milbank and Adrian Pabst grant that liberalism “has afforded some protection against the worst transgressions upon the liberty of some by the liberty of others”—but, on the whole, postliberals are attracted to a kind of Burkean conservatism. “Right-wing on culture, left-wing on the economy” is how they are usually characterized. Through this formula, they think, it may be possible to bring back social cohesion, “the wisdom of tradition,” and respect for “the common good.”
Two books published this year by leading lights of postliberalism, Patrick Deneen and Sohrab Ahmari, provide an opportunity to critically evaluate this “new” school of thought (perhaps not so new). On the one hand, Deneen’s Regime Change: Toward a Postliberal Future illustrates the weaknesses of the ideology; on the other hand, Ahmari’s Tyranny, Inc.: How Private Power Crushed American Liberty—and What to Do About It illustrates its potential strengths. Ultimately, however, despite its mutability, postliberalism is misguided and dangerous in its idealism, its theoretical confusions, its political naïveté, and many of its political commitments. It too easily slides into proto-fascism. What is valid in it can be and has been expressed more sophisticatedly by the Marxist left.
Since it has the ear of some right-wing populists, such as J. D. Vance and Josh Hawley, and it seems to be growing in influence, this ideology should be taken seriously. Leftists may be able to find common ground with its advocates on certain issues, but in general, they should strongly resist this latest brand of conservatism.
The Idealism of Postliberalism
One of the major analytical flaws of postliberalism is, in fact, one of the weaknesses of all conservatism: its anti-Marxian idealism. In all his romantic talk of reverence for ancestral traditions, Edmund Burke abstracted from the actual daily functioning of these traditions, from their foundations in appalling violence, in constant violations of the dignity and freedom of the lower classes, in the irrationality of a nation’s being subject to the will of some arbitrary monarch who happened to be born to a previous monarch. A very different conservative, Milton Friedman, similarly abstracted from the daily realities of capitalism—the indignities of working for a boss, the suppression of the right to unionize, the violence in which the rule of capital is grounded—in his simplistic paeans to “freedom.” (His famous book Capitalism and Freedom (1962) consists of abstract idealizations like this one, chosen at random: “The kind of economic organization that promotes economic freedom directly, namely, competitive capitalism, also promotes political freedom because it separates economic power from political power and in this way enables the one to offset the other.” As if, in the real world, economic power doesn’t tend to confer political power!) Fascism was even worse: it idealized will, nation, race, the state, the Leader, and war, abstracting from the grubby realities of all these things.
Being a type of conservatism, postliberalism does the same. Its very name is idealistic and simplistic. “Liberalism” can’t be the fundamental problem we face today for the simple reason that there isn’t only one liberalism, there are many. Among the classical liberals, there were British, French, American, and German figures, as diverse as John Locke, Wilhelm von Humboldt, Kant, Thomas Paine, William Godwin, John Stuart Mill, and Tocqueville. There were socialists, anarchists, and capitalists. There were deists, Protestants, Catholics, and atheists. There were democrats, republicans, and monarchists. And in the twentieth century, liberalism evolved in even more complex ways, towards social democracy and its protection not only of “negative liberty” but also “positive liberty,” as in the freedom of people to have a living wage, a home, an education, and affordable healthcare. Even the anarchist communism of Peter Kropotkin can be said, in some respects, to belong to the liberal tradition. In short, the core intuition of liberalism—“a general enlargement and freedom and rational direction of human life,” as Lionel Trilling described it—can be fleshed out institutionally in innumerable ways, including in socialism, i.e., people’s democratic control of their work. (In fact, one can argue that Marxism is but a continuation and conceptual deepening of the best traditions of liberalism.)
Patrick Deneen’s two recent books—Why Liberalism Failed and Regime Change—exemplify the idealism of conservatism. Again and again, imposing a false unity on the liberal tradition, he blames liberalism for things that are more realistically attributed to capitalism. When he refers to “[recent] decades of liberal dismantling of cultural norms and political habits essential to self-governance,” what he means is capitalist dismantling. Liberalism is but an ideological attitude, a constellation of philosophies; capitalism—how people work, how they acquire property, how they exchange goods, how class relations are structured, how culture is produced and politics is organized—is the real basis for a way of life.
When Deneen, in Why Liberalism Failed, writes that “[liberalism] has remade the world in its image, especially through the realms of politics, economics, education, science, and technology, all aimed at achieving supreme and complete freedom through the liberation of the individual from particular places, relationships, memberships, and even identities,” one recalls the words of an infinitely more profound thinker:
The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations… It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation… All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned…
No mere ideological “tendency” (to quote Trilling again) could achieve all this. It is the class structures of capitalism that have remade the world.
Regime Change is shot through with idealism. The basic structure of the book is reasonable enough: in the first two chapters, Deneen diagnoses the faults of liberalism, including not only its ostensible ripping apart and atomizing of the social fabric but also its elevation of hypocritical liberal elites (“the managerial class,” the real power elite) who don’t care about “the people” but use identity politics to pretend they do, shredding the last vestiges of traditional norms in the process. In the next three chapters, he presents the postliberal vision. He calls this “common-good conservatism,” associating it with Burke, Benjamin Disraeli, and G. K. Chesterton, but more generally with “the classical and Christian tradition of the West—a common-good political order that seeks to harmonize the various contentious elements of any human society.” This conservatism aligns itself with the “common sense” of ordinary people, who “seek stability, predictability, and order within the context of a system that is broadly fair.” The solution to contemporary social ills is to implement the political philosophy of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, a “mixed constitution” (democratic and aristocratic) in which an elite much more noble than that of today will “work to improve the lives, prospects, and fate of the people,” as the people, in turn, demand excellence from the elite and themselves are influenced by the virtues of the new aristocracy.
In the final two chapters, Deneen fills out his Aristotelian vision, which he calls “aristopopulism,” while also gesturing towards an answer as to how this glorious new society will be realized. His answer isn’t particularly satisfying: “an ennobling of our elite” will come about “through the force of a threat from the popolo [people],” that is, “through the efforts of an energized, forceful, and demanding populace.” This is pretty much all he says on the matter. Likewise, his sketches of the better world to come consist of empty bromides and exhortations. Rather than meritocracy, we need a society that integrates the “working-class ethos of social solidarity, family, community, church, and nation” with the “virtues of those blessed by privilege.” To combat racism, we shouldn’t embrace affirmative action or other divisive approaches but should resurrect Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of a “deeper ‘integration.’” Tepidly criticizing the ardent nationalism of people like Yoram Hazony (author of The Virtue of Nationalism), National Review editor Rich Lowry, and other “national conservatives,” Deneen proposes instead “a new form of integration of local, national, and international” (italics in the original). What that concretely means he leaves unsaid. His practical program for reinfusing religion into social life is similarly perfunctory, containing little more than such vague entreaties as “a simple first step would be to publicly promote and protect a life of prayer.” Politics should be “a place for prayer, since politics is how we together seek to realize the good that is common.”
One of the greatest swindles of postliberalism is its nostalgia for an idealized past. According to Deneen, the Enlightenment project of individual liberation required the overthrow of “older social forms that had taught and reinforced the cultivation of virtue.” Traditional institutions “protect the stability and order that most benefits ordinary people,” and in fact are deeply democratic “because they are the creation of countless generations of forebears” and “largely develop from the ‘bottom up.’” As it happens, feudalism wasn’t a particularly democratic institution that cultivated virtue. Nor was absolute monarchy. Nor was the Catholic Church, which, until the spirit of liberalism finally began to permeate it, was a rapacious tyranny that burned heretics, policed thought, crusaded against the advance of knowledge, and made common cause with autocrats everywhere. (Also, of course, it now has the distinction of systemically aiding and abetting child abuse.) However inspiring the figure and philosophy of Jesus may be, history has shown that religious institutions, like all administrative hierarchies, are prone to abusing their power unless suffused with the liberal spirit of respect for individual rights.
This worship of religion is a classic instance of mistaken idealism. Postliberals are enamored of Christianity, attributing much of what is good in our civilization to its religious inheritance and much of what is bad to its abandonment of religion. Most of the time, they ignore questions about whether, after all, it is true that something called “God” exists or that Jesus is His son and was resurrected after dying for our sins, or any of the other dogmas of Christianity (or Judaism)—and rightly so, for in order to evaluate the plausibility of any proposition, it’s necessary to use the Enlightenment’s “rationalistic” method they dislike. With regard to socially relevant questions, they appear to have a pragmatist conception of truth: if a belief is useful, we might as well believe it. But is religion in fact useful? Its violent, tortured, bigoted history suggests otherwise. Nor is it at all clear that humans need religion in order to enjoy a healthy communal and family life or to heed the moral duties that bind us all together.
Often, religion has functioned to undermine the well-being of communities and families. It isn’t a secret that conservative politicians use appeals to religion to convince people to vote against their economic interests. An infamous example is that of Governor Sam Brownback of Kansas, a religiose Christian who passed radical tax cuts in 2012 that, as the Brookings Institution summarizes, “led to sluggish growth, lower-than-expected revenues, and brutal cuts to government programs” like schools, housing, infrastructure, and police and fire protection. Similarly, for over a hundred years, businesses in the American South have used conservative Christianity to ward off the threat of unionism, helping to keep the region in a state of relative poverty. In Struggle for the Soul of the Postwar South(2015), historians Elizabeth and Ken Fones-Wolf describe how corporate executives in the postwar era relocated their factories to this region, where “chambers of commerce advertised the benefits [of] locating in a ‘distinctly religious city’ where the ‘labor is of native Anglo-Saxon stock—loyal and efficient.’” The CIO’s Operation Dixie was unable to overcome the resistance that evangelical Protestantism (among other forces) put up to unions.
On the whole, then, postliberals have a rather uncritical attitude towards tradition and religion, as conservatives usually do. They’re nostalgic for a lost social cohesion, the lost unity of “Western culture.” As Adrian Pabst writes in Liberal World Order and Its Critics (2019), identity politics (combined with “corporate crony capitalism”) is “changing the fundamental character of Western civilisation from being a cultural community bound together by common values that define shared interests to a ‘business community’ based on sectional interests that promote divisive values.” But when, exactly, was “Western civilization” such a unitary entity? The history of Europe is the history of constant clashes, constant wars, constant struggles between different value systems and interests and cultures, long centuries of violence and bloody suppression of innumerable popular uprisings. Divisiveness is history. And idealism is false history.
Buried under all the confusions and shallowness of postliberalism, however, there is a truth: throughout its five-hundred-year history, riven by war, privatization and the destruction of the commons, mass immiseration, and the crushing of democracy, capitalism has profoundly disrupted communities and uprooted identities. This is precisely why, or one reason why, leftists and “the people” have fought against it. Genuine leftists are well aware of the human need for roots, for order and stability and community. The great anarchist mystic Simone Weil even wrote a book entitled The Need for Roots: Prelude to a Declaration of Duties towards Mankind. “To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul… Money destroys human roots wherever it is able to penetrate, by turning desire for gain into the sole motive.” There is no reason such a recognition should be incompatible with the best traditions of liberalism, for instance Humboldtian liberalism. That is, there is no reason a philosophy of individual rights and individual dignity should preclude a recognition of mutual obligations and the essentially social nature of humanity, including even a valorization of honorable traditions and shared norms that constrain unfettered liberty. This isn’t the place to delve into the philosophies of communism, socialism, and anarchism—the writings of Kropotkin, William Morris, Anton Pannekoek, Rudolf Rocker, Murray Bookchin, etc.—but the societies they envision are hardly licentious or degenerate or atomized. (Or remotely similar to the Soviet Union’s state capitalism, with which socialism and communism are absurdly associated.) They are eminently ordered, communal, and democratic, because they are grounded in a liberal humanist sensibility.
Indeed, one might even say that the real reason the world is in such an awful state is the opposite of that given by postliberals: there is too little freedom, not too much. There is too much authoritarianism, not enough liberalism or democracy. In particular, the authoritarian structures known as corporations have overwhelming power—including over governments—which they certainly do not use in the interests of humanity, community, or social harmony. Noam Chomsky is surely right that classical liberalism, or libertarianism, in its profoundest forms is not only not fulfilled in capitalism but is actually incompatible with it, inasmuch as capitalism tends to violate both the negative and positive liberties (“freedom from” and “freedom to”) of ordinary people. A vast literature of the left, of journalism, and of historical scholarship exposes the tyrannical nature of capitalist institutions; for example, in 2017, the philosopher Elizabeth Anderson published a well-received book called Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk about It). (A corporation is “a government that assigns almost everyone a superior whom they must obey… [T]here is no rule of law… Superiors are unaccountable to those they order around. They are neither elected nor removable by their inferiors,” etc.) The most recent addition to this literature may be a surprise, though: Ahmari’s new book.
Tyranny, Inc. could not be more different from Regime Change. It appears, in fact, that Ahmari is undergoing a semi-conversion to the left, or to aspects of the left. It is striking, after all, that a postliberal should have written a book the very subtitle and substance of which valorizes “American liberty.” Whereas Deneen wallows in a lazy idealism that traffics in windy abstractions like virtue, excellence, and tradition, Ahmari investigates the material conditions workers have faced under the neoliberal onslaught, together with the corrupt political economy that has brought about these abysmal conditions. Where Deneen believes that an enlightened Aristotelian aristocracy will magically come into being and work to uplift the people, Ahmari comprehends the essential fact of class struggle and advocates the resurrection of strong unions and social democracy. He even uses Marxist language: “cultural norms, practices, and beliefs…rest on a material substrate that includes law, politics, and economics.” In short, while Deneen and his co-thinkers blame a unitary ideology of their imagination called liberalism, Ahmari, at least in this book, blames capitalism.
One can’t help wondering if the postliberal gang is a little unhappy with Ahmari’s semi-apostasy. Consider his criticisms of conservatives in his concluding chapter:
[C]onservative defenders of the [social] system are often the first to lament its cultural ramifications: …a decline in civic and religious engagement, particularly among the poor and working classes; low rates of marriage and family formation; and so on.
…[What results] is a downright ludicrous politics centered on preaching timeless virtues while denying what political theory going back to the Greeks has taught, and what every good parent or teacher knows: that cultivating virtue requires tangible, structural supports. A child will struggle to master honesty if his parents routinely model dishonesty; a body politic will likewise spurn the virtues if subjected to merciless economic exploitation.
It’s true that more populist conservatives these days are prepared to defend right-wing cultural values against “woke capital.” But few if any dare question the coercive power of capital itself. Dig into the policy platforms of tub-thumping GOP populists, and you will likely find effusions of unreserved praise for capitalism.
Here, he is coming close to the realization that right-wing populism is completely phony, that it has always functioned to distract from the class conflicts that are fundamentally responsible for popular suffering, so that a large portion of the public instead rages against LGBTQ people, liberals, Muslims, immigrants, Jews, Communists, China, and anyone else not big business. To be sure, postliberals don’t effusively praise capitalism, as other populist conservatives do. But if they really valued “the common good” about which they prattle, they would, like leftists and the new-and-improved Ahmari, direct their ire at the chief agents of the collapse of community, family, morality, and the natural environment, namely the capitalist class. Otherwise they’re in danger of being useful idiots for this class that is interested only in further shredding the social compact.
Tyranny, Inc. is dense with journalistic investigations of a litany of types of “coercion” corporations inflict today on employees and the public, informed by a competent telling of the history behind it all (relying on scholars like Karl Polanyi, John Kenneth Galbraith, and David Harvey). Among other topics, Ahmari illuminates the many ways in which the sacred doctrine of “liberty of contract” between employer and employee conceals chasmic disparities in power that can ruin people’s lives. He illustrates the capture of the judiciary by the corporate sector. He exposes the predations of private equity, including its use of private emergency services (firefighting firms, ambulance companies) to fleece unsuspecting innocents of tens of thousands of dollars. He discusses the ongoing evisceration by Big Tech and Big Finance of the U.S.’s newspaper industry, which has seen almost a third of its newspapers shutter since 2005 (while many of the remainder are gutted by their new Wall Street owners). And so on. The most viable solution to all these tragedies, he argues, is to revive Galbraithian countervailing power. “Once more, it’s up to the American worker to drag our politicians and corporate leaders into a new consensus.”
Insofar as Ahmari remains a postliberal, his book shows the mutability of this ideology. Its proponents can choose any particular agenda to devote their energies to, whether reconstituting unions and social democracy, advocating a Catholic theocracy (like Adrian Vermeule), fighting against the rights of non-heteronormative people, seeking a much more restrictive immigration regime, denouncing so-called “liberal” interventionist foreign policy, or prohibiting the teaching of the history of racism in the U.S.’s public schools. Rhetorically at least, all of this can be defended in terms of shoring up the disintegrating social order and protecting “communal solidarity.” In a sense, this mutability can be considered a strength, for it allows postliberalism to appeal to people of very different values and interests. But it is the strength of fascism, an ideology that likewise prided itself on being postliberal. Fascism was no less resourceful in appealing to different groups of people, including peasants, landowners, industrialists, the petty bourgeois, racists, traditionalists, even a small minority of workers, who were told their interests would be represented in the great community of the nation bound together by common traditions. In practice, of course, fascism, as a species of conservatism, ended up representing above all the interests of the ruling class, while crushing unions and working-class political parties.
The Proto-Fascism of Postliberalism
Tyranny, Inc. shows that leftists can find common cause with postliberals on some issues. To the extent that someone of the right really does care about the common good, or rather the good of the vast majority (to which the good of the ruling class tends to be inimical, since its power rests on the exploitation of others), a socialist might well be willing to work together with him. Such an alliance, necessarily limited and conditional, is often ridiculed as “red-brownism” by leftists, but it does happen in politics that people of different ideologies cooperate on a political campaign or policy that will conduce to the greater good. A politics that rests on maintaining one’s purity is unlikely to get very far.
Nevertheless, it is undeniable that postliberalism is very dangerous, potentially fascist. Insofar as it is anti-liberal—which left-leaning postliberals, such as Adrian Pabst, are not—this isn’t a difficult case to make. “Within the West, Hungary has set the standard for a reasonable approach,” Gladden Pappin believes. Vermeule deplores the expansiveness of liberal rights: “Yesterday the frontier was divorce, contraception, and abortion; then it became same-sex marriage; today it is transgenderism; tomorrow it may be polygamy, consensual adult incest, or who knows what.” In Conservatism: A Rediscovery (2022), Yoram Hazony argues that “cultivation of the national religion is an indispensable purpose of government.” He goes so far as to affirm, quoting Irving Kristol, that “there is no inherent right to self-government if it means that such government is vicious, mean, squalid, and debased.” But who is to make such a judgment? Why is your definition of what is right and good necessarily better than someone else’s? Are you infallible? What gives a reactionary religious nationalist like Hazony the right to impose his vision of the good life on an entire society?
Apart from the noxious political commitments of most postliberals, there is an even deeper problem: in conditions in the United States today, to ground one’s politics in attacking liberalism is to undermine postliberals’ own professed values of “national resilience,” “common purposes,” and the “social covenant” (to quote Adrian Pabst’s Postliberal Politics). This is because the chief beneficiaries are the forces most aggressively sabotaging these values, the Republican Party and reactionaries in the business community.
To put it bluntly, postliberals’ embrace of politicians like J. D. Vance, Josh Hawley, even (in some cases) Donald Trump, and their hope for an authentically populist, working-class Republican Party, is incredibly naïve. Nor is it new. At least since (in fact, before) Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy, Republican politicians have been clothing themselves in populist garb, stoking culture wars and denouncing liberal elites in order to cleave the “working-class” vote from Democrats. As Nixon’s vice president, Spiro Agnew traveled the country attacking “permissivists,” “elitists,” “radical liberals,” “thieves, traitors, and perverts.” Reagan liked to invoke the “postliberal” themes of family and community: “When they [Democrats] talk about family, they mean Big Brother in Washington. When we talk about family, we mean ‘honor thy father and mother.’” These themes, of course, have been a mainstay of Republican rhetoric for generations. “I am here to say to America,” Bob Dole pontificated, “do not abandon the great traditions that stretch to the dawn of our history. Do not topple the pillars of those beliefs—God, family, honor, duty, country—that have brought us through time and time again.” George W. Bush preached the virtues of compassionate conservatism, which proved to be just as oxymoronic as common-good conservatism will doubtless be. Today, the enemies du jour are critical race theory, transgenderism, and wokeness, but the underlying strategy is always the same.
And what does that strategy eventuate in? Tax cuts for the rich, gutting of regulations to protect the environment, and a war on workers and the poor. Trump’s NLRB waged an “unprecedented” attack on workers’ rights. His administration weakened or eliminated over 125 policies that protected the country’s air, water, and land. His budgets savagely slashed benefits for low-income Americans, continuing a longstanding Republican practice. The great “populist” senators Hawley and Vance give, at best, tokenistic and rhetorical support to the working class: neither has even cosponsored the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, and Hawley, according to the AFL-CIO, has almost always voted against the interests of workers. Vance, a venture capitalist, finds it much more congenial to spout racist “great replacement” nonsense and blame those with a low income for their own failures than to actually do anything to help the latter. Meanwhile, the Republican Party remains rock-solidly opposed to even the mildest proposals to address global warming, which threatens not only working people but all life on earth. If this sabotage of life itself is what the postliberal common good looks like, one might even prefer the classical fascists.
Analytically, a key error that helps make possible postliberal political naïveté (assuming the likes of Patrick Deneen and Yoram Hazony are acting in good faith) is to associate together, in one overarching nefarious tradition, classical liberals, modern economic conservatives, New Deal liberals, contemporary centrist liberals, woke identitarians, and “liberal” imperialists from Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson to Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden. In a sense, even Marxism is included in this tradition, inasmuch as it shares the orientation towards progress of all these groups, their detachment from and denial of the virtues of tradition. (As if the left doesn’t want to preserve healthy traditions and abandon unhealthy ones.) This is a hopelessly confused classification, wholly superficial because of its idealistic focus on the supposed shared commitment to vague concepts of progress and freedom. In order to understand political history, you have to consider the material interests that these different groups and ideologies serve.
For example, economic conservatives like Milton Friedman or Paul Ryan are liberal or libertarian in name only. Their talk of free markets is a fig leaf for outright authoritarianism in the form of slavish support for corporate tyrannies (as Ahmari describes), which would have horrified classical liberals like Adam Smith. Most conservatives don’t care about a mythical free market anyway, as shown by their enthusiasm for exorbitant government spending on the defense industry and for munificent tax breaks and subsidies for corporations. Capitalism could not survive without these sorts of government interventions, nor can markets operate without some firms soon exerting “illiberal” market power; so it is idle for postliberals to talk about a nonexistent economic liberalism.
New Deal liberals were and are totally different from self-styled economic liberals, serving a popular constituency—so it’s odd that Deneen attacks them, too. After all, they often acted—as progressives still act—in approximately the same way as his ideal aristocracy would, “work[ing] to improve the lives, prospects, and fate of the people.” If one cares about the common good, why denounce social democracy, which more than any other capitalist formation protected families and communities? But because the progressive state was irreligious, non-traditional, and supposedly inspired by elite fear and loathing of the people (?), it was and is bad. (Deneen also opines that redistribution of wealth to workers has “led to extensive damage to the broader economic order,” citing no evidence.) His preferred reforms include increasing the size of the House of Representatives to 6,000 members; requiring that every American serve one year in the military; “substantially reducing” university education and investing in more vocational education; breaking up monopolistic companies; investing more public funds in infrastructure and manufacturing; penalizing companies that employ undocumented immigrants; banning pornography and passing laws that promote “public morality”; and enacting policies that reward marriage and family formation, such as Hungary has instituted under Orbán. Predictably, he says nothing about labor unions, except, as a parenthesis, that strengthening them is “a worthy undertaking.”
Leftists would be more sympathetic to postliberals’ contempt for the conventional centrist liberalism of the Democratic Party today, albeit not necessarily for the same reasons. Indeed, many are similarly disdainful of the performative, business-friendly identity politics that has become a dominant ethos in the “professional-managerial class” that postliberals despise. But to call this “class” the real power elite, the real oppressors—as Deneen and others do—is both laughable and proto-fascist. This thesis is a core premise of right-wing postliberalism, for, if you can find a villain that isn’t the capitalist class, you don’t have to locate yourself uncomfortably close to the left. The PMC will do the job nicely, since it’s a diffuse category of people, many of whom have an elite status, that pervades and partially runs society’s hegemonic institutions. Its members tend to be culturally different from the masses of Americans without a college degree, so it’s easy to stir up resentment against them, which can be used to elect reactionaries who will do the bidding of the real ruling class (while blaming woke liberal professionals for the suffering that results).
Deneen’s treatment of the “managerial elite” is influenced by a favorite text of postliberals, Michael Lind’s The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Managerial Elite(2020), which itself is influenced by James Burnham’s famous book The Managerial Revolution (1941). Burnham posited that ownership and control were separated in modern corporations, and that, as a result, a new managerial class was replacing capitalists as the ruling class. This was a flawed analysis: for one thing, despite the transformations of the economy that had indeed occurred in preceding decades, corporations were still subject to the logic of capital, which required that they squeeze profits out of the exploited labor of workers. Capitalism was not ending. But whatever plausibility the thesis may have once had was long gone by the time of the 1980s’ shareholder revolution, which Deneen and Lind seem not to have heard of. The stubborn fact is that some people still make their money from ownership and investments, while others make money by selling their labor-power. These two groups tend to have antagonistic interests, an antagonism rooted not in the vague cultural differences between the “meritocracy” and “the people” that Deneen describes—such as (he says) the former’s mobility, its “disconnection from a shared cultural inheritance,” and its identity politics—but rather in objective structures of how money is made and how power is distributed in the workplace and the economy.
It is true that most professionals occupy an ambiguous place between capitalists and the larger working class. Barbara and John Ehrenreich theorized this ambiguity in their landmark 1977 essay “The Professional-Managerial Class,” and Marxists since then have devoted a great deal of effort to making sense of this huge group of people, some of whom have more interests in common with the traditional working class and others with corporate executives and owners. Since its emergence in the early twentieth century to help manage “the reproduction of capitalist culture and capitalist class relations,” the PMC has, most of the time, not shown much solidarity with the blue-collar working class. In fact, in their 2013 essay “Death of a Yuppie Dream,” the Ehrenreichs argue it “has played a major role in the oppression and disempowerment of the old working class.” Professionals (usually more or less politically centrist, or “liberal” in today’s parlance) are easy to dislike, since they often exhibit the vices of high-status groups everywhere: they’re prone to being smug, elitist, hypocritical, conformist despite their pretensions to independent thought, complicit in the neoliberal evisceration of society, etc. Leftists are, perhaps, almost as fond of ridiculing them as conservatives; see Catherine Liu’s Virtue Hoarders: The Case against the Professional Managerial Class (2021) and Amber A’Lee Frost’s “The Characterless Opportunism of the Managerial Class” for examples.
Nevertheless, if you want a more communal, just, and sustainable social order, you have to think about strategy. No class exemplifies virtue. The question is whether your agenda will be to dismantle corporate power, the real engine behind the atomization that postliberals decry, or to attack the relative peons of the PMC, who (as the Ehrenreichs note) are beginning to succumb to the disintegrating economic and political forces that have decimated the old working class. The second path is the road of fascism, the search for a scapegoat that only ends up empowering the most vicious elements of the ruling class. The first path, according to which professionals in precarious economic circumstances ought to be appealed to instead of vilified, is the road to genuine social change.
In other words, postliberals have to make a decision: do they want to concentrate on combating social liberalism—banning pornography, criminalizing gender-affirming health care for those who suffer from dysphoria, erecting draconian barriers to immigration, banning “liberal” books and school curricula that address America’s real history—thereby empowering faux-populist Republicans who will cut social programs, attack unions, increase military spending, accelerate environmental destruction, give corporations and the wealthy even more power than they have, and devastate families and communities? Or do they want to concentrate on tackling the latter crises and forego a war on social liberalism? They can’t have it both ways, because only the left will ever honestly confront the material catastrophes that are savaging working-class communities. The left itself would do well to start prioritizing class solidarity rather than only identity politics (as some leftists have argued), but at least it is trying to do far more for the working class than the right is (since the right, after all, exists to serve business). Even Biden’s Build Back Better bill, which couldn’t pass because of Republican opposition, would have enormously benefited working families through its investments in childcare and preschool, paid family and medical leave, community college, child tax credits, physical infrastructure, affordable housing, health care, and environmental protection.
Thus, because of its alleged interest in the public good but its conservative (Republican) orientation, postliberalism is ultimately incoherent. It is not a new ideology, being in many ways a return of paleoconservatism, of the anti-modernism of Jerry Falwell and Pat Buchanan, even of the—admittedly more extreme—alt-right of several years ago, which shared a lot of the reactionary cultural grievances of postliberals. Deneen & Company try to make their ideas more respectable by invoking Aristotle, Aquinas, Tocqueville, Pope Leo XIII, and other exalted names, but this is a transparent exercise in idealistic mystification. The proto-fascism is right below the surface.
There is a particle of hope, however. If more postliberals choose the left-wing path of Tyranny, Inc. than the far-right path of Regime Change, they might manage to make a positive contribution to American politics. But this will require shedding their illusions about the likes of J. D. Vance, Marco Rubio, and Josh Hawley, and instead following the example of, say, Bernie Sanders. That’s where a humane, working-class politics is to be found.