Our Grim Postliberal Future

The prospects for a return to a classical liberal past or the success of a postliberal right are dim. The right is in survival mode, and should act accordingly.

Any serious discussion of liberalism should begin by looking at its historical context. The liberal worldview is not a collection of abstract ideas that can be fitted into different situations and eras at the user’s convenience. Liberalism developed in the Western world in a specific culture and time period, which was the early modern era. While it incorporated principles and rhetoric taken from older traditions of thought, including classical antiquity and the Bible, what was liberal gained currency with the rise of the Western bourgeoisie. 

One does not have to be a Marxist to recognize this connection, nor does one have to deprecate or relativize liberalism’s achievement to acknowledge its distinctive cultural and social framework.

Liberalism at its height, which was the 19th-century Western world, fostered certain identifiable political and moral developments. They were, among other things:

  • constitutional government
  • a well-defined distinction between the state and civil society
  • a generally free market economy
  • and a high regard for private property.

It was a system that moved individuals “from status to contract,” in the words of English jurist Henry Maine. That is, under pre-liberal systems, individuals had been tightly bound by their status, while under liberalism they were able to enter contractual relations regardless of social rank and to form associations with whomever they wished.

What liberalism, properly understood, did not require or necessarily encourage are the following: 

  • female suffrage
  • redistribution of income
  • tolerance of bizarre sexual practices
  • replacement of nation-states by international organizations
  • and the tolerance of clearly inflammatory speech intended to overthrow the government.

Although liberals in Catholic countries typically clashed with clerical authorities, very few were atheists. In Protestant countries, liberals were almost always churched. Both English Prime Minister William Gladstone and French Premier François Guizot, for example, were devout Protestant Christians. English historian Lord Acton was a fervent liberal but also a religious Catholic. 

Providing such contextualization for liberalism, or so goes the argument of my book After Liberalism (1999), is essential for distinguishing the real article from the vagaries and eccentricities of those systems and people claiming to be liberal in this postliberal age. 

For instance, it’s all fine and good if a homosexual atheist abandons some aspect of the LGBTQ cause. Indeed, given our present moral state, I commend anyone who has second thoughts about abandoning that practice, which is endorsed by modern America’s unhinged state religion. But I’m not sure those second thoughts indicate that the person subject to them is either liberal or conservative in any true historical sense. That individual inhabits a world so vastly different from the one in which liberalism or conservatism flourished that the most we can say about his change of heart is that he’s become slightly less radically leftist than his erstwhile friends.

The use of “liberal” becomes even less plausible when we are told that New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez embodies the concept because she supports both a socialist economy and Black Lives Matter. Even allowing for the latitude that journalists take with language, I couldn’t imagine a greater conceptual gulf than the one that exists between those whom our media characterize as “liberal” and those who answered to that label 200 years ago. Does it make sense to apply the L-word to vastly different ideas in different ages by twisting it into utter meaninglessness? My answer is “no.”

It seems to me that the liberal bourgeois age was followed by a postliberal one, which saw the rise of the modern administrative state and various post-Christian egalitarian ideologies. This postliberal age is not entirely divorced from its liberal predecessor but relates to it in the same manner as a Christian heresy does to Christian doctrine.

A theological deviation is, in ancient Greek, a hairesis, a “choice,” meaning the choice of a particular doctrine from a larger set of beliefs, together with the rejection of other parts of the set. A similar process is at work when postliberals try to redefine liberalism by choosing and exaggerating one or more of its features out of the context of the historical whole.

For example, some but not all liberals believed, like John Locke, that individuals are endowed with a natural right to life and liberty. Today’s progressives and cultural leftists calling themselves liberals have expanded Locke’s list of inborn individual rights to include a right to income redistribution favoring clients of the state; a right to ensure gender equality; a right to have the acceptance of gay marriage inflicted on the unwilling; and a right to bestow special rights on members of racial minorities.

One may still discern bits of the older natural rights position in that expanded list. Nevertheless, under the progressive dispensation, rights are pushed in such a radical or opportunistic direction that they would be unrecognizable to long-dead authentic liberals.

Other examples come to mind. Liberals typically favored a popularly elected legislature, but that didn’t mean they believed every resident of their society should be granted the franchise. Bourgeois liberals usually insisted that voting applicants establish longtime residence in the country, that those eligible to vote pay taxes at a certain rate, that they hold property, and that they be literate. Many self-professed liberals as well as conservatives opposed extending the vote to women, which they thought would have a ruinous effect on the family.

Voting was seen as a privilege, hardly a human right, and it was understood that extending it too far could deliver society into the hands of those who were unfit to rule and who might be a threat to life and property. It is clearly not the case that the loose way voting is now treated finds any precedent in the liberalism of an earlier age. Even John Stuart Mill, an early welfare-state democrat and feminist, wished to keep the illiterate and those who lived on the public dole from voting.

Although liberals in the 19th century welcomed what was a minimal administrative state by modern standards, a striking difference between then and now should be apparent. In the 19th century, liberals applauded the public servant class, which as Hegel famously described it in the 1820s, “stands above all particular interests” and served the common good. This reflected a widespread liberal approval of public administration, as long as it was limited to a few well-defined functions, such as delivering mail, looking after state property and public works, maintaining archives, and, in some places, providing relief for the poor.

Never was it imagined, except by some dreamers on the far left, that by the second half of the next century, state administrators would be put in charge of “family policy” and reconstructing social relations. That was not a small and inevitable step forward in the progress of the liberal idea, as is argued by those on the so-called postliberal right, but a terrifying quantum leap into unknown territory. 

One critical reaction against such developments has been to advocate for “classical liberalism.” However, this represents not a return to the liberalism of the 19th century but the creation of a libertarian movement stressing individual autonomy. Libertarians have taken over traditions that have a genuine liberal provenance, such as Austrian economics, constitutional originalism, and the defense of property rights. 

But some libertarians have added to this mixture a focus on the individual resisting state power in pursuit of his own interests and pleasures. Moreover, in its extreme version, libertarianism has become associated with bohemian lifestyles, flouting bourgeois conventions, and reducing life to a series of economic choices. This is not true liberalism. 

Indeed, much of what is now interpreted as a conservatism dating back to the 1930s combined the rejection of the administrative state, which was metastasizing under the New Deal, with the libertarian penchant for eccentric, individualist lifestyles.

Such responses to the postliberal order did not exemplify a return to anything “classical” but must be understood in their own context. These were postliberal reactions to a postliberal administrative state, which took over some of the features of 19th-century liberalism in an exaggerated form. Most liberal leaders throughout the 19th century favored protective tariffs (except in England, which was then the industrial pacesetter), were strongly nationalistic, and had no objections to a mutually profitable alliance with the state. In any case, these traditional liberals had a much broader view of the market than free-market purists now accept. Furthermore, on many moral questions and the defense of public decency, one would be hard-pressed to find common ground between them and most of today’s self-described libertarians.

A predictable objection to my characterization of our postliberal age is that it ignores all the “liberal” assets that the postliberal age had been preserving, at least until quite recently. Didn’t we enjoy, up until a few years ago when woke political and media elites decided to abolish them, all kinds of freedoms that came out of earlier times? For example, religious liberty, the right to an unhindered exchange of ideas, constitutionally limited governments, and protection of personal property? My answer to this objection is to concede the point, with one enormous reservation. What remained of the liberal tradition in the last hundred years was living on borrowed time; one should not be surprised that it gradually became weakened and is now vanishing. 

According to Aristotle, the creation and maintenance of regimes depend on tropos, a disposition and orientation that allows them to take root and flourish among particular populations. Not every regime is suited to every culture; when the needed disposition disappears, the corresponding regime will disintegrate. As John Adams said of America, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

The historicist argument I would make is in some ways similar. A liberal regime with its accompanying principles and social arrangements prevailed in a situation that was favorable to its development. As those preconditions grew weaker, the regime gradually changed, although some of its founding ideas continued to flourish into the postliberal age, at least for a while 

I entirely agree with Carl Horowitz’s critical comments about the postliberal Catholic right, whose representatives often sound like New Deal social democrats with a changed label. It is hard for me to distinguish their plans for a larger welfare state from what has already been done to control us economically; and this may be why these supposed right-wing critics are not enduring a leftist backlash. They also seem to hate the Northern European Protestant culture that gave rise to our founding documents and its liberal institutions. In stark contrast to these detractors, I profoundly admire America’s founding culture and what it produced. But I also doubt its political achievements have continued historical relevance, so I would apply here my favorite aphorism from Carl Schmitt: “An historical truth is true only once.”  

At the present time in every major onetime Western country, there is an escalating confrontation between two warring groups: a self-conscious ruling class with globalist pretentions, and those “normies” whom the powerful are demeaning. While the former controls most vital political and educational institutions and most of the culture industry and media, the latter embraces most of the white working class and the population outside of metropolitan areas.

Divisions similar to what we see in the United States are characteristic of other Western countries. Everywhere in the West political elites are flooding their culturally divided countries with Third World migrants to increase the size of the administrative state’s dependent class. Needless to say, the same elites are eager to play off the manipulable newcomers against the “deplorables,” “fascists,” or whatever else they call those rooted, patriotic families on whom they’ve made war. 

Both these groups are locked in a struggle that is likely to go on for some time, and both belong to a postliberal world, which has less and less to do with a liberal one. Right now, the elites hold almost all the good cards; and their targets are on the defensive. But this can change in some limited ways. In the United States, unlike in more subjugated countries such as Canada and Germany, there are just too many on the populist right for the left to crush entirely. What’s more, the resistance occupies large chunks of the continent.  State governments in some regions are now acting to stem the floods of illegals that the ruling left has worked to bring into the country.

Such resistance would be impossible, for example, in a country like Germany, where the population has been bullied into accepting the Third World resettlement of their land. As I write this essay, the local government of Augsburg, Germany, is encouraging mass demonstrations (which are likely to turn violent) against Germans who want tighter control of their borders. The officials doing this include the faux conservatives in the Christian Social Party.

Opponents of the woke regime in Germany have long been under investigation by government agencies as right-wing terrorists. Although such vindictive measures have been attempted by the ruling left in this country, it has not had nearly the same level of success that such measures have attained elsewhere. High-handed action against dissenters has evoked a far more widespread backlash here than in other parts of what American neoconservatives still describe anachronistically as the “free world.” 

It seems highly unlikely that, if the populist resistance gains at least regional power in the United States, it would seek to return to the political culture of the 19th century or even embrace the milder form of postliberalism that once prevailed here. That ship has already sailed, as the cliché goes. The non-left and the non-elites are now in survival mode, as the left is swelling its numbers by opening borders to millions and millions of illegals. Opponents of this leftist takeover may survive but are unlikely ever to rule the entire country. The most they could hope for would be regional autonomy within a larger society that remained under globalist, woke leftist control.

In areas under their sway, these “normies” will preserve those values and beliefs that held them together in times of tribulation. These would consist of settled communal arrangements and a shared religious faith—but not necessarily what our strict constructionists understand as constitutional rights. Since these beleaguered outposts would have to protect themselves against infiltration, it is hard to imagine they would care about constitutional niceties or the fine points of a temporally distant bourgeois classical liberal society. 

They would also be made up largely of those with little advanced education except in vocational fields. Most of those who have been influenced by academic culture now belong to the woke left.

If the present woke elites totally marginalize their opposition, a process that is already occurring elsewhere in first-world countries, we may soon be living in an antiliberal hell.

What I’m offering is a best-case outcome. If the present woke elites totally marginalize their opposition, a process that is already occurring elsewhere in first-world countries, we may soon be living in an antiliberal hell. The victors would sooner jail the other side than allow it to gain influence. And if circumstances require this course, the ruling left will unleash more violent riots and then, with media assistance, blame these disturbances on the right, as they did after the death of George Floyd.

For all these reasons, I am forced to conclude that liberalism, as it once flourished in the bourgeois West, may be a thing of the past. I say this without pleasure but with an understanding that those conditions and social underpinnings that permitted a liberal worldview and liberal sensibilities to flourish no longer exist. By now the remnants of that liberalism are vanishing in what may be the end phase of our late postliberal age.

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