President Donald Trump giving his inaugural address on 20 January 2017

Searching for a radical alternative

Two new titles join a burgeoning chorus of populist lament


This article is taken from the August-September 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Perhaps the most arresting sentence in Patrick Deneen’s new book Regime Change: Towards a Postliberal Future is also the only one I noticed in bold type. “What is needed,” this professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame writes, “is the application of Machiavellian means to achieve Aristotelian ends.” That bracing desideratum occurs towards the beginning of the book’s third and concluding section, “What Is To Be Done?”

Many readers will recall that this question was made famous in a pamphlet called What Is to Be Done? Burning Questions of Our Movement. Its author was V. I. Lenin, a man who excelled in the application of Machiavellian means to achieve his own, not quite Aristotelian, ends. 

Regime Change: Towards a Postliberal Future, Patrick Deneen (Forum, £22)

Regime Change follows Deneen’s 2018 bestseller, Why Liberalism Failed, which purports to explain why the Founding Fathers botched the task of providing the United States with a worthy constitution, largely because they relied on the “individualistic” philosophy of John Locke. Barack Obama, who applauded the book’s “cogent insights into the loss of meaning and community”, was one of its most prominent boosters.

Deneen was hardly the first to find fault with Locke. From the right, the conservative political philosopher Leo Strauss decried what he saw as Locke’s “hedonism” and covert reliance on the dour philosophy of Thomas “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” Hobbes. Writing from across the ideological aisle, Canadian Marxist C. B. Macpherson criticised Locke for promoting a philosophy of material accumulation.

Traditionally, Locke, writing in an era of stark religious conflict, was seen above all as an apostle of toleration. From a moral, political perspective, his aim was less prescriptive than accommodating. That is, he was less interested in telling men how to live their lives than in defining the conditions through which they were likely to prosper as citizens in a free society. 

In Why Liberalism Failed, Deneen deliberately limited himself to analysis, performing the role of cultural and political pathologist. In Regime Change he undertakes what we might call reconstructive surgery. The American regime, he says, is “exhausted”. Its “embrace of economic and social ‘progress’” has rekindled ancient divisions and resentments. Note the scare quotes around the word “progress”. The word frequently sports that decoration in Regime Change, as do words such as “meritocracy” and “elite”. 

Deneen’s book is part of a burgeoning chorus of populist lament. I’ve been singing in that troupe myself for several years, and I have a marked sympathy with elements of Deneen’s diagnosis. At the same time, though, I frequently thought of the story of the curate’s egg when reading Regime Change. “How is your morning egg, Curate?” “Good in parts,” came his reply. 

I agree with many particulars in Deneen’s bill of indictment. The self-appointed mandarins of the regime — and it is an international conglomerate, with outposts wherever the bureaucratic machinery of the administrative state prevails — are every bit as noxious and soul-blighting as Deneen says. 

Its Platonic form is to be found in figures such as the minatory Davos-man Klaus Schwab of the World Economic Forum, human resources departments the world over, and the alphabet soup of extra-legislative agencies that populate the corridors of power. Its orientation is globalist, not local; its attitude paternalistic, its mood imperative. Ultimately, as some wag put, its ambition is to render everything that is not prohibited mandatory. 

Deneen dislikes the self-appointed elites who govern our society almost as much as I do. That is not to say that he dislikes elites as a class, however. His own alternative, which he calls “aristopopulism”, assumes a class of aristoi (an elite) but one more in tune with the masses. He doesn’t say exactly who will fill its ranks, though I suspect professors of political science with the right portfolio of attitudes will be welcome. 

The prime Aristotelian virtue is a very un-Machiavellian disposition

Which brings me back to Deneen’s application of “Machiavellian means to achieve Aristotelian ends”. To begin with, one might ask whether ends achieved through the deployment of Machiavellian means can legitimately be called “Aristotelian”. The prime Aristotelian virtue is sophrosyne, moderation, a very un-Machiavellian disposition. In Politics, Aristotle says the best constitution for most states — not yet the ideal, he cautions, “which is an aspiration only” — is one in which the majority are able to enjoy the mean. “The city which is composed of middle-class citizens,” he says, “is necessarily the best constituted.” Aristotle might or might not be right, but his philosophy seems pretty distant from the yeasty ambition outlined in Regime Change

Aspiring regime-changers throughout history have eyed “Machiavellian means” with affection. Deneen is careful to say he wants his regime change to be “peaceful” but nonetheless “vigorous” in its prosecution of overthrowing “the corrupt and corrupting ruling elite”. 

When I read such statements, I think about the proverbial difficulties of riding tigers without ending up inside them. True, no matter how regime-changers answer the question “What is to be done?”, they find Machiavelli a useful ally. He doesn’t get bogged down with red tape, for one thing, and he is not squeamish. 

That, however, might give us pause. In the Social Contract, Rousseau said the sort of regime change he had in mind required that its architects “feel themselves capable … of changing human nature, transforming each individual, who, by himself is a perfect and solitary whole, into a part of a much greater whole”. 

It’s not a big step from there to Deneen’s identification of liberalism’s “core value” as “separation”, which he wants to replace with “integration”, the title of his last chapter. “Integration” and its cognates are golden words for certain Catholic academics these days. I do not think it unfair to point out that the demand for social-cultural “integration” has a chequered past, as the history of the word Gleichschaltung reminds us. 

As I hinted, Patrick Deneen’s book sounds a note in the populist Zeitgeist, a sentiment that brought figures like Donald Trump, Viktor Orbán, Giorgia Meloni, Jair Bolsonaro, Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson to the world’s attention and such movements as Brexit in the UK and Trump’s “America-first” MAGA campaign.

Values, Voice and Virtue: The New British Politics, Matthew Goodwin (Penguin, £10.99)

Deneen speaks partly as a political philosopher, partly as a sort of evangelist. In his new book,Values, Voice and Virtue: The New British Politics, Matthew Goodwin, professor of politics at the University of Kent, speaks as a social scientist. Both books arise out of the populist topsoil. They flower in very different sorts of rhetorical weather, though. Regime Change lists towards the apocalyptic; Values, Voice and Virtue plays out in the sober world of statistics and charts tracing such things as the “Decline of the Working Class, 1964–2019”, “Rise of the Middle-Class Graduate Elite, and “Estimated Net Migration to the UK, 1901–2011”. 

In Britain, the signal event of the period was Brexit, which in the first instance turned on the question of sovereignty, the question of “Who Rules?” Was it the people through their representatives in Parliament, or unelected, largely unaccountable bureaucrats in Brussels? Amongst other things, Goodwin writes, the controversy sparked by the movement for Brexit put paid to the idea of British politics as “stable, boring, moderate and consensual, held together by a ‘civic culture’ in which voters were happy to defer to their leaders in Westminster”. 

“On the contrary, the situation in Britain bore a marked similarity to the situation in the US as outlined by Donald Trump in his first inaugural address on January 20, 2017. ‘For too long,’ Trump said, ‘a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government, whilst the people have borne the cost.’

Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered, but the jobs left and the factories closed. The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories. Their triumphs have not been your triumphs, and whilst they celebrated in our nation’s capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land. That all changes, starting right here and right now, because this moment is your moment — it belongs to you.

Many commentators described Trump’s address variously as “dark”, “disgusting”, “nasty”, “borderline unAmerican”. I thought it a thrilling reaffirmation of very American values and a call to arms. Its aftermath, though, despite Trump’s many achievements, was dispiriting. Something similar happened with Brexit. So long in coming, it was supposed to forge a new alliance between left and right, the ruling elite and the masses. 

In the end, Goodwin argues in this thoughtful book, it did no such thing. “More than six years after the vote for Brexit,” he writes in his conclusion, “many people in the country are searching around for a radical alternative that will allow them to launch a revolt against the growing power of the new elite. The only question that remains is what form this radical alternative will take, and when it will arrive.” 

In other words, to adapt a quote from Churchill, we are not at the end, or even the beginning of the end, but we might be at the end of the beginning.

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