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The end of liberalism?

Patrick Deneen’s book finds new beginnings at the end of an era

Artillery Row Books

We are entering a time “after liberalism”, a fact confirmed with the evidence of our own eyes. Around the world, governments are abandoning the model of neoliberal political economy that has held sway since the end of the Cold War. Offshoring, financialisation, labour arbitrage, deregulation — all of these are being abandoned. Instead, we see increasing protectionism, trade wars, onshoring and attempts at reindustrialisation through industrial policy. 

The essence of a serious, truly conservative politics of the common good

Britain is a holdout, a zombified husk lurching this way and that whilst its leaders shrink from their duty to put the old paradigm out of its misery. Meanwhile, our social and cultural ecology is degraded, encouraging an ever more invasive therapeutic state to involve itself in managing our lives to maintain a rising GDP line. As Patrick Deneen writes in his new book Regime Change, “No sensible reader of the news could look at America and think it is flourishing.” The same is true of Britain.

If one has read Deneen’s 2018 book, Why Liberalism Failed, what Mary Harrington calls our “actually existing postliberal” reality is not especially surprising. The extent of our decline may still have the power to shock, though, should one take a step away to survey the wreckage. Liberalism, according to Deneen’s diagnosis, was a revolutionary political philosophy of separation: of man from God, of body from soul, of man from man, of past from present and future, of human origins from ultimate ends, of state from society, and of a new rational elite few from the querulous populist many. 

Liberalism’s anthropology was of man in the state of nature: placeless, timeless, bond-less, whose driving interest was material satiation achieved through one’s own labour and personhood-as-property. It was all undergirded by political society, created through consensual contract between autonomous individuals employing their rational, willed cognition. The irony is that liberalism’s thought experiment required a massive state architecture to bring about, leading to the very ills it claimed to ameliorate.

In Regime Change, Deneen moves from bleakly eloquent description to urgent prescription for the moment at hand when “we are inexorably entering the time after liberalism”. Whether the specific solutions proposed are feasible, either for America or Britain, remains to be seen. The fact that Deneen has dared to proffer new ways forward, rooted in old ideas applied to new times, is the essence of a serious, truly conservative politics of the common good. As Deneen writes, what is required is “recovery and reinvention, plumbing our own tradition for resources capable of addressing our current political impasse, but now articulated in contemporary terms”. As with his previous book, Deneen writes with elegance and clarity, mastering the art of prose that neither condescends to the lowest common denominator, nor indulges in academic complexity for its own sake. 

This attempt to lay out a positive vision for politics after liberalism has left him open to attacks from several directions. Those on the left think his proposals, and the political philosophy from which they grow, are too complacently reconciled with a non-leftist order — surprise, surprise. Meanwhile, some on the right see Deneen’s analysis as too quiescent in the face of a collapsing, degenerate regime. The armies of American right-liberalism have execrated Deneen for daring to repudiate post-World War II American “conservatism, accusing him of being tantamount to a theocratic fascist who wants violent revolution

What does Deneen actually say? What is his depiction of our troubles, and what are his proposals to get us through them? Deneen divides his thesis into three parts: why we are where we are, what the alternative is, and how to put it into action. 

Part one sets the scene, describing the “end of liberalism” as it reaches its final shape in which it is “increasingly tyrannical”. Next comes an analysis of the “power elite”, the managerial class who are both beneficiaries and enforcers of the liberal paradigm for their own cultural ends. This section is forceful in its damning indictment of the moral and social deconstruction unleashed by a liquifying liberalism on the ties that bind between people of modest means and ordinary lives, whilst liberating those who further and profit from such dissolution through the economic policies and luxury beliefs they adhere to. 

As Deneen writes, the tyranny that he views liberalism as midwife to “is not a contradiction of liberalism, but its fulfillment”. Reams of social and economic data in America and the UK testify to a growing divide between the increasingly neo-feudal managerial class with its cultural legitimators in the new Clerisy, and the proletarianising middle-class and the pauperising working class. 

This was enabled by a bipartisan elite, on left and right. The left proselytised social disintegration, whilst the right preached and practised economic disintegration. Conservatism, or right-liberalism, has been progressive liberalism driving the speed-limit. So-called wokeness and woke capitalism is, in Deneen’s view, a form of class warfare that endows the managerial elite with what Gaetano Mosca called a “political formula”. It furthers the worst elements of capitalism by breaking people down into fungible identity units that create new niches to market to and commodify. Such a political economic order enables an ever more frictionless marketplace as barriers between communities and cultures are dissolved. 

Those lower down the socio-economic scale, lacking the resources to act as a safety-net against the state of affairs, suffer the consequences. This unsustainable situation gave rise to populist electoral rebellions, which failed to change the deeper underlying conditions that produced such a sense of dispossession. This division reinforces the worst in the many and the few. The few have become arrogant, self-satisfied, self-righteous and contemptuous of those who fail to manipulate their way to the top of the meritocratic Cursus Honorum. The many become resentful, vindictive and unruly, seeking restitution through vengeance. The powerful maintain hegemonic cultural and economic power through dividing and conquering: setting different racial groups within the many against each other, whilst selecting those with politically appropriate immutable characteristics to join the ruling class and maintain its legitimacy as the bastion of progress and enlightened egalitarianism. 

Deneen harks back to the classical tradition of Aristotle, Plato, Polybius and Aquinas

After the questions posed about the unsustainability of managerial liberalism, Deneen answers with a counter-tradition that mixes pre-liberal elements, now applied for postliberal circumstances. He sees this counter-tradition as running alongside that of the liberalism described above, which came into greater force post-World War II and became hegemonic in the post-Cold War years. This counter-tradition is dubbed “common good conservatism”, described as “an older and forgotten but better form of conservatism, one that seeks the mutual betterment of both the elite and the people”. 

Such a conservatism seeks to reconcile the “few and the many”, the divide that has characterised political regimes throughout Western history. Deneen defines the common good that will bind the few and many together as the “sum of the needs that arise from the bottom up, and that can be more or less supplied, encouraged, and fortified from the top down. In a good society, the goods that are ‘common’ are daily reinforced by the habits and practices of ordinary people. Those habits and practices form the common culture, such as through the virtues of thrift, honesty, and long memory, which in turn foster gratitude and a widespread sense of mutual obligation.”

Deneen harks back to the classical tradition of Aristotle, Plato, Polybius and Aquinas, who “had no word for ‘conservatism,’ [but] offered its original articulation: a political and social order of balance, stability, and longevity that achieves the common good through forms of political, social, and economic ‘mixing”. Deneen also employs Machiavelli, James Madison, the Anti-Federalists, Alexis de Tocqueville, the American Populist tradition and more modern writers like Christopher Lasch in making his case. Conservative luminaries Edmund Burke and Benjamin Disraeli help articulate what the good held in common means for a political order that faces revolutionary political and economic circumstances. As Deneen puts it, Burke and even more so Disraeli “fully recognized that a bottom-up culture needed explicit and self-conscious defense by a cultured elite that previously had not recognized the extent to which it was — or should be — aligned with the broad popular sentiments of the people”.

This positive vision sees an affirmative role for cultural and moral guardrails conserved by tradition, allowing for stability, continuity and memory. It provides for the mutual flourishing between those families and communities of the many, whilst reinforcing the duty of the elite to uphold such an order. For Deneen, echoing Burke, “The true ‘rights’ of citizens are not reducible to individual rights but must foremost consist in the right to be well-governed, a right that rests on an intergenerational capacity to develop the virtues.” This requires a governing class to have a conception of the good that accords closely enough with that of the governed. 

“The Mixed Constitution” is Deneen’s political-philosophical framing for achieving such an order grounded in the common good. This involves discussion of Aristotle, Plato and de Tocqueville’s views of what could constitute such a mixed regime between the social orders. Aristotle desired a regime where the orders combined and amalgamated into what Deneen’s calls a “smoothie”, when distinctions would all but disappear in service to the good of the polis based in shared values and moral premises. Plato sought a mixed regime where orders would remain distinct, like a salad. Tocqueville was sceptical that such a mixed constitution was possible, but Deneen still finds within his work the material to buttress such a vision. 

Deneen builds on this intellectual architecture to articulate a vision for what he calls “aristopopulism”, which he defines as “a mixing of the high and the low, the few and the many, in which the few consciously take on the role of aristoi — a class of people who, through supporting and elevating the common good that undergirds human flourishing, are worthy of emulation and, in turn, elevates the lives, aspirations, and vision of ordinary people”. Deneen’s aristopopulism would involve using “Machiavellian means for Aristotelian ends”. This is where Deneen’s critics cry “violent overthrow of the government” and damn him for incitement. 

Never mind that Deneen explicitly states the necessity of a “peaceful” change in regime near the book’s beginning. Nor that after the much-quoted and hyperventilated-over line, Deneen writes that this entails “the use of powerful political resistance by the populace against the natural advantages of the elite to create a mixed constitution not ultimately of the sort imagined by Machiavelli, but in which genuine common good is the result”. This would be pursued through a “genuine blending of the classes in which the elites, under pressure from the people, actually take on features of aristoi and nobility — excellence, virtue, magnanimity, and a concern for the common good — and by means of which the people are elevated as a result”. It is this measured description of the inherently agonistic nature of peaceful, civilised politics that has drawn strong criticism from those further right who desire a more revolutionary approach. 

Moving into the last part of the book, Deneen calls for a move away from an order rooted in disintegration towards one of integration, one that serves to strengthen the common good. For Deneen, “the common good is always either served or undermined by a political order — there is no neutrality on the matter.” Liberal neutrality is a myth that denies the inevitability of politics’ moral content, allowing for the very disintegration Deneen lays out. Such mythmaking must be ejected for truth-telling.

Deneen’s analysis proves compelling, whilst his prescriptions for a more just political economy and social order oriented towards the common good are intriguing in their willingness to go outside the tired tropes of so much contemporary policymaking and intellectual theorising on both sides of the political aisle. Something close to a substantive politics of the good is slowly being articulated on the Republican side by J.D. Vance, Marco Rubio, Josh Hawley and hopefully more to come. We in Britain can only weep at the moribund state of much of the right and left. They offer technocratic tweaks in a time when history’s riptides threaten to drag the unwary under the seas of fate. 

I wonder whether such a vision is tenable in an America that is fast de-Christianising

Whilst there therefore is much to recommend, there were also several things that could have been argued with greater analytical clarity. Where the elite few are concerned, authors like Lind, Kotkin and James Burnham are cited, all to the good. In terms of replacing the managerial class, Deneen calls for a new elite that would arise as “‘class traitors’ to act on behalf of the broad working class, articulating the actual motives and effects of widespread elite actions”. As Deneen goes on, “Even if relatively small, an elite cadre skilled at directing and elevating popular resentments, combined with the political power of the many, can bolster populist political prospects as a working governmental and institutional force.” 

This consideration of how ideas have consequences, through the elites that articulate and implement them, is welcome in a conservative intellectual space that is still in hoc to Andrew Breitbart’s dictum that “politics is downstream of culture”. I nonetheless thought, as did Ross Douthat, that more sociology would have helped his account of how elites form and circulate. James Davison Hunter’s account of how cultural change happens through elite networks and institutional dynamics, using the example of Christianity’s conquest of the Roman Empire, might have been a useful supplementary source. Likewise would be Italian elite theorists like Mosca, Vilfredo Pareto and Robert Michels, all discussed in Burnham’s book The Machiavellians

As with the elite few, so with the working class many. The argument here could have benefitted from a disaggregation of the factions within the working class many. This group is not a monolith, and different factions within it have voted for populist figures for different reasons. In the UK, Stephen Davies used polling data and other records to produce a portrayal of the Brexit coalition that had greater specificity, dividing Brexit voters into those from “Brexitshire” and “Leaverstan”. The first were bourgeois, prosperous, patriotic and located in the south. The second were working class or post-bourgeois, increasingly economically precarious, found in small-town provincial Britain across the Midlands and North, and desiring change in how Britain is run. Similar divisions have been analysed by Lind and Kotkin when it comes to left-populist and national populist American voters. 

Some of the practical policy solutions seem to have merit, although it’s hard to judge their practicability for modern America or their applicability to the UK. The final section that calls for greater involvement of Christian religion and prayer in public life was moving to me as a believer, but I wonder whether such a vision is tenable in an America that is fast de-Christianising. In Britain we haven’t “done God” for decades, and we are proudly apathetic when it comes to questions of ultimate ends and the highest good. It’s nonetheless not the case that Deneen’s emphasis on this is totally foreign to the American tradition, given that prayer in public schools was only banned in 1947. America is a Christ-haunted country like no other. 

It seems that no one is interested in possible solutions to our deep-seated, chronic but increasingly urgent problems. Deneen was criticised over Why Liberalism Failed for not offering any way out of the impasse he convincingly argued that liberalism had left us in. This book comes along at a time when most people are seemingly happy to maintain their commitment to a decadent doomerism about the prospect of moving towards a better social, political and economic order. Do I agree with all the prescriptions that Deneen offers? No. Do I agree with the entirety of his thesis? Again, no. We should be thankful, though, that there are thinkers like Deneen willing to turn their minds and their hands towards charting a possible course out of the current crisis.

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