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Postliberals against the common good

Patrick Deneen
Patrick Deneen is very far from being a serious thinker.

[Published at Common Dreams.]

“The Republican Party is the most dangerous organization in human history,” says Noam Chomsky. It seems like a ridiculous statement. “Has there ever been an organization in human history that is dedicated, with such commitment, to the destruction of organized human life on Earth? Not that I’m aware of.” He has a point. Even the Nazis didn’t want to destroy civilization itself; they wanted to kill millions of people and dominate civilization, not bring it to an end. The Republican Party is much more ambitious, and more nihilistic: it is the capitalist id, or rather the capitalist death instinct, adopted as the organizing principle of a vast political force. Profit over people at all costs, including acceleration of global warming—not to mention demolition of organized labor, the welfare state, the regulatory state, progressive taxation, public resources like education and transportation, and the whole legacy of the New Deal. For Republicans even more than Democrats, enslavement to the business oligarchy is the highest good.

This being the case, one might be perplexed that “postliberals” and other conservatives who pride themselves on their concern for “the common good” do not devote all their energy to defeating Republicans and organizing a popular movement for social democracy. In fact, they tend to do the opposite: they praise and endorse Republicans (especially pseudo-populists like Donald Trump, Josh Hawley, and J. D. Vance) while denouncing the “progressives” or “democratic socialists” who are struggling to build movements that will defend the common good and repair the social fabric rent by hyper-capitalism. On issue after issue, from protection of the environment to the resurrection of labor unions to the dismantling of psychopathic mass incarceration, it is organizers on the left, not the right, who are actually trying to conserve society. In this sense, it is leftists who are the true conservatives.

The political attitudes of most postliberals are approximately those manifested in Patrick Deneen’s new book Regime Change: Toward a Postliberal Future. It’s a very flawed book, as I explain in a forthcoming review. Here, I want only to note the incoherence of its political stance, which is that of right-wing postliberalism in general (as opposed to left-wing postliberalism, such as Adrian Pabst’s). As in his earlier book Why Liberalism Failed, Deneen deplores the atomization of modern society and the decline of community, stability, family, and traditional norms of social obligation. But he blames this social crisis on “liberalism,” a constellation of ideologies (some of which, historically, are mutually contradictory), rather than the material social relations of capitalism, as Marxists have done since the Communist Manifesto of 1848. In Marx’s famous words, “The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations… All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned…” Since capitalist class structures are the real basis for a way of life—an atomized, profit-obsessed, consumerist, hedonistic way of life—postliberals have gotten the very name of their philosophy wrong. It should be called postcapitalism, assuming the goal really is to create a cohesive, communal society.

What a postcapitalist world would look like is hard to imagine, but it would at least do away with the antagonistic and exploitative production relations that are ultimately responsible for the atomization postliberals lament. Ordinary people would control their work, in the form of worker cooperatives and democratic government coordination of large industry (possibly still in a market-oriented economy). The 1912 platform of Eugene Debs’ Socialist Party isn’t a bad place to start. If the notion of some degree of “government planning” seems unrealistic or tyrannical, we should remember that even today, the U.S. government engages in economic planning on a colossal scale, for instance through its subsidies to high-tech industry, its trade and tariff policies, its military procurement programs, and its regulation of all sectors of the economy. During World War II, in fact, government planning was remarkably successful, leading to full employment and setting the stage for the prosperous 1950s and 1960s. We don’t live in a true market economy.

Instead of taking their “communitarian” values to their logical, anti-capitalist conclusion, however, most postliberals remain on the level of culture, identity politics, and other half-measures. Deneen, like his co-thinkers Gladden Pappin, Chad Pecknold, Adrian Vermeule, Yoram Hazony, and others, advocates restrictions on immigration in the hope that this will somehow shore up the national community and protect wages. (He disregards the fact that the presence of undocumented immigrants and refugees stimulates the economy and creates jobs.) He argues that we have to renew the “Christian roots of our civilization” by making politics “a place for prayer” and reinfusing religion into public and private activities. Broadly, “an ennobling of our elite,” such that it is selflessly concerned with the well-being of “the people” and “work[s] to improve the[ir] lives, prospects, and fate,” will revitalize society and community. He fails to explain how such an ennobling of the ruling class can ever occur in the context of advanced capitalism, characterized by the global hegemony of unfettered greed.

In fact, Deneen even deprecates social democracy and its “progressive liberalism,” claiming without evidence that redistribution of wealth to workers has “led to extensive damage to the broader economic order.” He seems unaware that postwar social democracy, created through overwhelming pressure by unions, socialists, and communists, was the closest modern society has ever come to protecting families, communities, and social stability.

It isn’t hard to criticize the idealism, political naïveté (as if class conflict isn’t endemic to capitalism!), and historical ignorance of postliberalism. But the basic incoherence of the ideology is that its attacks on liberalism and the left, and its defense of conservatism, only serve to empower the forces most dedicated to sabotaging the very values postliberals claim to uphold, values like “national resilience,” “common purposes,” and the “social covenant.” Republicans and business reactionaries love to keep the political focus on things like the decline of religion, the ostensible immigrant invasion, and the excesses of liberal identity politics, so that they can go on smashing the working class, appropriating most of the world’s wealth, privatizing and atomizing society, and destroying the prospects for human survival. Postliberals are in danger of being useful idiots for the most insatiable sociopaths on the planet.

Will it be denied that the Republican Party is as bad as all this? Consider the evidence. Donald Trump is supposedly a populist, someone trying to turn Republicans into the party of the working class. It turns out that his administration, like all Republican administrations since Reagan’s, was utterly slavish to the most misanthropic sectors of business. His NLRB waged an “unprecedented” attack on workers’ rights. He 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. All this is the exact opposite of protecting the “common good” that postliberals say they value so much.

What about the great “populist” senators Hawley and Vance? They 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 spew racist “great replacement” nonsense—an identity politics of the right—and blame those with a low income for their own failures than to actually do anything to help the latter. If this is the record of Republicans who present themselves as pro-worker, it isn’t hard to imagine how bad establishment Republicans are.

Perhaps the greatest crime of the Republican Party is that it is almost rock-solidly opposed to even the mildest proposals to address global warming, which threatens not only working people but all life on earth. The sweltering summer the world has just experienced will likely be seen as a gloriously mild one thirty years from now, when wildfires are raging everywhere, ocean levels are much higher, and whole continents are descending into chaos. The Republican plan to address the coming cataclysms is…to make them worse. Project 2025, a conservative blueprint for the next Republican president, calls for “shredding regulations to curb greenhouse gas pollution from cars, oil and gas wells and power plants, dismantling almost every clean energy program in the federal government and boosting the production of fossil fuels.” The inadequate Inflation Reduction Act, which provides $370 billion for investment in clean energy, would be repealed. Allied nations would be encouraged to use more fossil fuels, and the National Security Council would be forbidden to consider climate change worthy of discussion.

Nihilism on this scale, an explicit embrace of something close to species-suicide by a major political party, is unheard-of in history. It is collective criminal lunacy, worse than Nazism, as Chomsky rightly notes. And yet how many postliberals, how many conservative proponents of the traditional values of family, community, and morality, are strongly speaking out against it, against this brazen threat to all families, communities, and morality itself? Their priority, rather, is to denounce “critical race theory” and keep out immigrants, as if that will heal the country.

Postliberals claim to favor policies that support marriage and family, singling out for praise Hungary’s initiatives to offer paid leave for parents and financial incentives for three or more children. They also support government spending on large infrastructure projects. So why didn’t they aggressively lobby Congress to pass Biden’s original Build Back Better bill in 2021? This bill, which couldn’t pass because of Republican opposition, would have been an immense boon to 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. It was the most ambitious measure in generations to repair the social compact and encourage family formation. Not a single Republican supported it.

It is hard to imagine that any party has ever been more committed to destroying families than the Republican, yet the self-proclaimed defenders of family values aim their ire at Democrats. However bad Democrats are, they are the party responsible for the New Deal, for Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, for the almost-passed Build Back Better bill, for Biden’s NLRB that is as supportive of unions as Trump’s was hostile towards them. We should recognize, then, a perhaps unpalatable truth: since Republicans will never do a single thing opposed to the interests of the billionaire class, the only hope for the United States is to keep them out of power at the same time as popular movements are pushing Democrats to the left. Had the Democratic Party won a few more seats in the Senate in 2020, transformative laws on voting rights, union organizing, family welfare, and environmental protection that were passed in the House might have been enacted. It was a tragic missed opportunity, but, with the defeat of Republicans and the election of leftists, such opportunities can appear again.

Postliberals can contribute positively to politics, but only if they follow the recent example of one of their own: Sohrab Ahmari, who has written an impressive book on corporate America’s plunder of the working class, entitled Tyranny, Inc: How Private Power Crushed American Liberty—And What to Do About It. Ahmari still seems to have some illusory hope regarding the likes of Hawley, Vance, and Marco Rubio, who wouldn’t be in the Republican Party if they really wanted to help people. (Token populist moves shore up their voting base.) But at least Ahmari has apparently realized that the battle against liberal identity politics is less important than the battle for a left-wing economic agenda—and in fact that the right-wing crusade against wokeness sabotages the struggle for workers’ rights and a livable future, since it empowers Republicans.

One hopes that more postliberals will, similarly, come to their senses.


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