The Right's Answer to Decadence?

Post-liberalism and its present limits, from Hungary to MAGA.

Today is publication day for the paperback of The Decadent Society. Please celebrate responsibly, ideally by purchasing the book.

My own celebration will take the form of a post on political responses to decadence, jumping off from a review of The Decadent Society by The Week’s Damon Linker. Linker’s essay was generally extremely kind, but he ended on a note of disappointment that I didn’t go deeper into an analysis of the “post-liberal” Western right and its challenge to the exhausted-seeming neoliberal center:

Douthat's book can be read as a melancholy sequel to Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man that confirms the author's darkest predictions but without endorsing (or seriously wrestling with) any of the concrete efforts going on around us to overcome our own malaise by breaking away from decadent liberalism — whether it's Donald Trump's MAGA presidency, the Catholic conservatism of Poland's Law and Justice Party, Marion Maréchal's National Rally in France, the National Conservatism spearheaded by Yoram Hazony, or Viktor Orban's anti-liberal and pro-natalist populism in Hungary. Given that Douthat is a conservative who longs for renewal, rebirth, and revitalization — for an end to the decadence he thinks plagues us — it's surprising that he has so little to say about these efforts in the book. (American writers who share many of Douthat's assumptions and concerns — Patrick Deneen, Rod Dreher, and the people in the orbit of First Things magazine — have been much less reticent, and much more explicitly hopeful, about these developments.)

What Douthat gives us instead is a concluding series of alternative scenarios for political, cultural, and economic "renaissance" — "Eurafrica," "The Return of Paganism," "A Western Islam," "A Christian China." The discussion is interesting, but it feels oddly disconnected from reality, a bit like a retreat into fantasy … Which may mean that, for all its strengths, Douthat's book about decadence is more than a little decadent itself.

So first, a concession: Any book about decadence written under decadence is likely to partake of the phenomenon it describes, and so I plead at least somewhat guilty to Linker’s concluding charge.

But then in my own defense, The Decadent Society actually does cover some of what he suggests it passes over: It tackles Trump-era populism and the revival of nationalism in Europe, it surveys the post-liberal theorizing of thinkers like Deneen and ventures like the Paris Statement, it discusses Trump’s famous/infamous defense-of-the-West speech in Poland, and it spends a little time with Shinzo Abe’s style of conservative politics in Japan. It just comes to the conclusion (which I think has been largely vindicated in the case of Trump) that these developments, while definitely partial rebellions against decadence, are also practically limited or self-limiting in various ways, and don’t necessarily point as far beyond the present era of liberal sclerosis as some of their champions like to think.

Maybe there’s a distinction here that I could have made more clearly in the book. I think many of the ideas floating around in post-liberal and “integralist” circles are genuinely fascinating; in fact I find the debates between post-liberals and liberals, as well as those happening within the post-liberal big tent (it’s fractious crew, not surprisingly), to be some of the most interesting political-theological arguments available today. If I were to write a book about American Catholic intellectual life in the 2020s, the intricacies of these arguments and their long-term implications for the Catholic mind might take pride of place.

But in The Decadent Society I was trying to focus on political ideas as they’re expressed or likely to be expressed in real-world political reforms or revolutions. And if you ask me how the writings and influence of the right’s post-liberals are likely to cash out in actual conservative politics, I would say — hopefully — that they might give the right an extra push toward the union of social conservatism and economic populism, and — somewhat less hopefully — that they might be used to provide intellectual cover for some of the corruption that we’ve seen from Orban’s party in Hungary or the Trump family in the United States. The first possibility is desirable, the second possibility is depressing … but again, neither would represent the kind of dramatic break with the existing order that’s implied by post-liberalism’s philosophical critiques of how the West got here.

For the liberals who fear these ideas and tendencies, that’s good news. At the very least, as I argue in the book (in chapter 7, to be specific), even the most “illiberal” leaders in Europe and its near-abroad aren’t actually challenging the legitimacy of the liberal-democratic order in the way that was normal in the great ideological conflicts of the past:

“Illiberal democracy” in practice is either just liberal democracy with somewhat more nationalism than Western bien-pensants prefer, or pseudo-democracy dominated by a dictator who doesn’t want to own up to his own authoritarianism—because, again, he’s still tacitly accepting the legitimacy of the late-modern Western liberal order. Let Putin be crowned czar of all the Russias, let Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan an revive the caliphate under his own personal rule, let Poland or Hungary remake themselves as Christian monarchies, and we can begin to talk about the fall of the Fukuyaman, end-of-history world. But what exists in the so-called illiberal democracies now is just a more nationalist or conservative or degraded form of what exists in “normal” Western countries—a somewhat different variety of decadence, most likely, rather than a post-liberal inheritor.

Thus in cases like Orbanism and the National Rally in France, what gets called the European “far right” is generally just trying to get back to Gaullism — to a Europe of nations inside a loose economic community, with more immigration restrictions and national myth-making than the post-1970s Eurocrats support — but in a more bunkered and pessimistic form. (With the further complexity that a defense of social liberalism against both Islamism and progressivism is woven into the Western-European version of this far — or is it? — right.)

Meanwhile “common good conservatism” in the United States, though it officially rejects George W. Bush and all his pomps and works, is still sort-of trying to get back to the year 2000 and try Bushism again — this time with the “humble foreign policy” for real, and with industrial policy and family policy instead of No Child Left Behind, and maybe a crusade against pornography instead of the fight against same-sex marriage, provided that the libertinism of the Barstool-conservative faction will allow it.

To be clear: I favor some version of this kind of conservative politics. But I’ve spent my adult life favoring it, so I’m well aware that it represents a limited, meliorist response to decadence, not a rupture or (as my Claremont Institute friends might say) an alteration of regime, even on an FDR rather than a French Revolution scale.

Instead, if implemented successfully, I suspect that a new-right program along these lines might bear some resemblance to Shinzo Abe’s program in Japan, his attempted fusionism of cultural nationalism with bold persistent experiments to break the grip of economic stagnation and demographic decline. As I note in The Decadent Society, Abe was arguably the most successful leader of a developed country in the 2010s — but Japan has not obviously escaped decadence even so.

Meanwhile the same political-intellectual pattern obtains with post-liberals of the left. The objective political correlative to the revival of academic Marxism or the appeal of radical-environmentalist thought is a left-wing politics that wants the U.S. to be somewhat more like Denmark, a completed social democracy rather than a partial one. This, too, may be desirable, but to glance at Scandinavia is to see that social democracy is not a cure for late-liberal anomie, demographic decline, etc.

This doesn’t make the radicalism politically unimportant. It’s quite possible, on Overton-Window grounds or some other, that having a more radical philosophical critique of liberalism in play is necessary to pull the right toward even a moderate and modest form of populism. To get Oren Cass running some future White House economic shop, you need Adrian Vermeule and The Josias reviving Catholic anti-liberalism; to get Marco Rubio and Mitt Romney and Tom Cotton tiptoeing around a common-good economics you need the former Mencius Moldbug preaching against the Cathedral. (And on the left, you need the Marxists and anti-capitalists to get $1.9 trillion in deficit spending, and the de-growthers and doomers to get a bunch of green infrastructure projects.) Indeed, looking back maybe the main problem with Grand New Party as a political intervention was that Reihan Salam and I couldn’t triangulate effectively, because back then we didn’t have enough populists or nationalists who were clearly to our right.

But still, a modified, more working-class-friendly form of Bushism isn’t really what Vermeule or Curtis Yarvin want or preach, any more than the Biden stimulus bill actually satisfies capitalism’s more radical left-wing critics. And it’s hard for me to see how post-liberalism’s more distinctive ideas — a digital-age form of monarchy, a Catholicized administrative state, full luxury Communism, etc. — can translate into real-world Western politics without some other transformation happening first. (This is why essay-length Vermeule, envisioning the slow development of Catholic cadres inside a decadent liberal order, is more persuasive than Twitter Vermeule, who often seems to expect the defeat of liberalism the day after tomorrow.)

Which means, in turn, that I end The Decadent Society with the speculative scenarios that Linker cites, rather than with a close analysis of Orbanism or for that matter Corbynism, because I think the speculative scenarios are actually more likely to happen than any existing post-liberal program for sweeping internal Western renewal is likely to succeed. Indeed I deny that the examples Linker cites are actually “disconnected from reality.” In some form “Eurafrica” is inevitable, not speculative, and the emergence of a “Western Islam” and a “Christian China” seem like much more plausible scenarios for the world of fifty years from now than, say, a neo-Communist revolution in the West or the triumph of 19th-century papal critiques of liberalism in the life of the American republic.

At the very least if you wish to imagine futures wild enough to bring the Union of Socialist American States or the Pan-American Empire of Guadalupe into being, you need to imagine other dramatic ruptures happening first — general environmental or economic transformations, profound religious or technological revolutions, maybe a visitation from space aliens. It is not my position that any of those dramatic developments will necessarily happen. But it is the definite position of The Decadent Society that the attempt to apply post-liberal ideas to existing political and economic and social arrangements will not change the Western world dramatically unless something else changes first.