Between Neuhaus and De Maistre
Some questions about the post-liberal right in theory versus practice.
My column on Sunday discussed what I described as the timeliness of the newer American right — the way that newish tendencies in conservatism, variously described as populist or post-liberal, reactionary or nationalist, are addressing themselves to things that have changed in the world over the last twenty years, in a way that I think is distinct from a lot of other tendencies on the left and center-left and center-right, which are more likely derive their diagnoses and prescriptions from the world as it existed in 1975 or 1990. I try not to use the word decadence in every single column, but in the safe space of this Substack I can allow that this is a way of saying that I think the new right is less decadent, potentially at least, than some of its rivals for intellectual and political power.
Of course that’s only a starting place for discussion. A set of ideas can be timely without being workable and practical, a worldview can speak to current discontents without having a prayer of resolving them. For a consideration of some immediate issues with the newer right I recommend this dispatch from the recent National Conservative shindig in Orlando by the English writer Mary Harrington, which zeroes in on two related issues. First, in their battle with progressivism, the would-be “post-liberals” find themselves, no less than other social conservatives before them, in an alliance with a lot of libertarians and libertine-ish “Barstool conservatives” and refugees from liberalism, for whom the appeal of moving rightward has little to do with notions of a common-good conservatism and much more to do with a desire not to be bossed around by wokeness. At the same time, developments in Western politics have yielded a new politics of the common good on the center left, a biomedical integralism if you will, whose Faucian vision the new rightists generally oppose … but that trend, too, exerts a gravitationally libertarian and anti-statist pull upon Western conservatism at exactly the moment when the new rightists are trying to refound the right as the party of the state and the common good.
So that’s one set of complexities and challenges. I want to talk about a slightly different kind of question, having to do more with the relationship between “post-liberalism” — as expounded right here on this platform, among other places, by the formidable figures of Chad Pecknold, Gladden Pappin, Patrick Deneen and Adrian Vermeule — as a philosophy and post-liberalism as an agenda, and whether the agenda requires the philosophy and what the proper connection is between the two.
One of the key themes of the post-liberals since their emergence as an important intellectual faction has been that you can’t go back to some earlier point in liberalism’s trajectory, when the liberal order and various religious or conservative goods seemed more compatible with one another; the outworking of liberal ideology, liberal political theology, has carried us beyond that kind of synthesis or coexistence. (Here is Vermeule offering this critique of what he sees as this fatal nostalgia in a range of Catholic writers, including me.) No: For conservatism to begin to conserve or restore it must reject any “backsliding into liberalism’s illusion,” as Sohrab Ahmari put it recently, any pining for some Time Before when “conservative liberalism” wasn’t just a contradiction in terms.
But especially lately the post-liberal writers have tended to stress the political practicality of their vision, the importance of acting in the world for the common good over and against purely theoretical or hypothetical debates about what post-liberalism might require. And watching this practical turn take shape, it can seem, well, somewhat restorationist in its own way — in the sense that in its priorities I can see many things rejected by contemporary left-liberalism and/or by the libertarian style of right-wing politics, but rather fewer that are ruled out by the history of American liberal democracy between 1789 and 1970, or by European Christian Democracy as practiced in the post-war era.
Thus, e.g., post-liberal industrial policy has antecedents in the 19th and 20th century, post-liberal family policy has antecedents in the “maternalism” of the New Deal era and the longstanding family policies of Western Europe, post-liberal views on the place of religion in the public square have antecedents in the soft Protestant establishment of much of American history, post-liberal views on pornography and abortion have antecedents in the laws that prevailed on those questions prior to the 1960s and ‘70s, post-liberal views on environmental stewardship has roots in the great Teddy-Rooseveltian projects, etc. etc.
This makes it seem like you could embrace a lot of the specifics of the post-liberal program while still taking the general view of American liberalism that the post-liberals critique as nostalgia or delusion — namely, that the American order has always been liberal in various important senses, that this liberalism was historically compatible with a robustly communitarian, common-good-oriented forms of politics, that American liberalism on the left and right alike took several wrong turns after the 1960s and 1970s, that we need to reject those wrong turns and restore the communitarian tradition … but that none of this requires embracing the logic of liberalism’s more sweeping critics, going the full De Maistre if you will, and setting out to found an entirely different regime, “an altogether new order.”
Instead the new right can just appropriate the non-Marxist left’s terminology, declare that it is overthrowing neoliberalism and all its pomps and works, and still plant itself firmly within the larger American tradition that historically allowed for, say, state-directed economic policy, morals legislation, a religious public square. (Which is, I think, certainly how the American politicians attracted to those ideas — a Josh Hawley, say — would express themselves. And even the nationalist politicians of Europe, for all that they sometimes use the language of post-liberalism, are fundamentally trading more on a desire to imitate or revive Gaullism than a truly reactionary spirit.)
So what is the rejoinder to this perspective? It might be that liberalism develops in certain ways that can’t be undeveloped, so that these practical policies were compatible with liberalism once but no longer, which means that now to really support them you have to first reject the liberal order, take the red pill as it were.
Or it might be that it’s a mistake to actually think of the pre-1960s United States or the Europe of Adenauer and De Gaulle as liberal societies or states, that instead we should see these regimes as Christian republics whose true history has been retconned by a slow-moving liberal coup — in which case the post-liberals are actually the real originalists, restoring what the Founders and their successors meant to build.
Or it might be that post-liberalism is a form of self-help for beaten-down conservatives, and the psychological change occasioned by becoming fully post-liberal makes you a new man, with new capacities for confident action — helping you shake free of the miasma of decadence, and escape the fatalism that haunts those conservatives who are interested in post-liberal ideas but not zealots for its cause.
Or it might be that to avow post-liberalism is a form of pre-commitment, a promise that you won’t go squishy when the liberal establishment comes offering its blandishments, because you’ve already assented to ideas that the establishment deems far beyond the pale.
I see hints of all these answers, and maybe other ones as well, in the writings of the post-liberals, and it may be that some of them require a certain lack of formal clarity, a Straussian turn or a deliberate ambiguity, in post-liberalism’s public presentation.
But I’m still interested in getting closer to clarity, not least because of my concern with decadence and repetition. Because part of what’s fascinating and striking about post-liberalism has been the extremity of its claims, its demand that you put away your John Courtney Murray and read your 19th century popes, that you find the roots of our present disorders in fundamental mistakes about human nature and politics that go back to the American Founding if not earlier, that you heed De Maistre and Donoso Cortes and Schmitt and L. Brent Bozell, not just Burke and Buckley and all the rest, in formulating what conservatism means.
So to be confronted, then, with practical agendas that are more familiar — some Henry Clay, some Gaullism, some Anthony Comstock, some Hadley Arkes — is in a way a relief, implying that what the post-liberals are saying isn’t quite so dire and dramatic and revolutionary after all. In the end, for all their anathemas against rival conservatisms, maybe what they’re doing is just widening the Overton Window so that conservative populism instead of right-neoliberalism can become the natural conservative center, and we can all mostly be absorbed together into that project, should such a thing fully and finally take shape.
But at the same time there’s a risk of disappointment, even a sense of decadence reasserting itself, when these confident and zealous critics of the entire liberal order, Founding Fathers and all the rest, suddenly complain that they’re being unfairly associated with hypotheticals about the return of the pre-liberal past — monarchy, state religion, and the like — when really they’re ready to get busy doing practical policy work with an ecumenical alliance of Protestants and Jews and ex-lefties who all share some degree of doubt about where liberalism is going. Because honestly that sounds a bit like they’ve used De Maistre and Schmitt and Pio Nono to circle back to … the Richard John Neuhaus project.
This, again, might not be a bad thing, not least because Neuhaus himself was not really the banal “right-liberal” of integralist caricature, and indeed the complexity of some of his work seems ripe for its own revival and reinterpretation. And under conditions of decadence, you might argue, to revive even relatively familiar ideas, or to give them a new spin — Neuhaus-ism but less neoliberal, say — sometimes you need to offer them in a more arresting and radical-seeming away, to shout to be heard above the thrum of distraction, to raise the stakes so that people afflicted by the terminal boredom at the end of the history can be reassured that they’re joining a project that isn’t just meliorist or modest (perhaps the signal weakness of reform conservatism, I would say), but genuinely transformative, offering not just a new agenda but a change of regime.
Still, there are risks in this style as well — those characteristic risks of anti-decadence that I like to talk about. A general mood of regime change gives opportunities to a range of different actors — Nietzschean chest-thumpers, well-meaning paranoiacs, cynical hustlers, Middle American radicals, and the sort of writers just come out and say let’s have a monarchy, frankly endorsing Caesarism rather than objecting when it’s invoked. In this environment there’s a certain danger in being the faction that seems to be using radical rhetoric to more reasonable policy-oriented ends, the faction that tells you to do the reading but then seems to fall short of what the authors it recommends would regard as full measures in the fight. The danger being that you are accelerating the train, but that you don’t actually get to choose the destination.
There was a long period in modern history, from the late Victorian era through the 1940s, when political Catholicism tried to guide and channel various forms of anti-liberalism. But in the end many of those efforts failed, and the church often ended up subordinated to secular-reactionary projects that came to various sorts of grief. And along with my appreciation for the work of contemporary post-liberals, and my agreement with many of their policy prescriptions, I harbor a persistent uncertainty that they have a clear theory of what is going to make this time and this anti-liberal project different.