Prime Minister David Cameron launches The Big Society Capital fund (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid-WPA Pool/Getty Images)

The post-liberal trap

The new communitarianism looks suspiciously like what we have already

Artillery Row

The word neoliberal has become something of a joke amongst certain political circles. For years it has been thrown around, encompassing anything from Tony Blair’s economic program to Ben & Jerries “woke” ice-cream. The only meaningful takeaway from the term is that neoliberalism is bad — and even worse, that it is ubiquitous. A casual observer will quickly understand that this is not an attack on the program of Murray Rothbard — rather, neoliberalism is a stand-in for whatever aspect of modernity irks the participant.

Another political term that is increasingly used by clued-up newspaper columnists is post-liberal — representing arguably the most influential intellectual movement in Britain today. The author of the definitive text on the movement — Postliberal Politics by Adrian Pabst — defines it thusly: “post-liberalism” will substitute “the dominance of market, state, and technocracy” for the primacy of “society, culture, and interpersonal relations”. Above all, post-liberalism aims to be the successor ideology to liberalism, just as neoliberalism once tried to be. 

The post-liberal crusade against laissez-faire liberalism is tilting at windmills

The post-liberal agenda isn’t exactly novel. The outline can be seen as far back as Blair. The former Prime Minister repeatedly warned in his early speeches about the desperate need to renew community to counter fragmentation at “the local, national and even global level”. Once in power, Blair set about hiring an army of “community workers”, a force which maintained its size throughout Cameron’s tenure. Cameron — the same man who wept at Margaret Thatcher’s funeral, citing her rule as the inspiration for his own future in politics — proudly pushed his “Big Society”. A fundamental post-liberal tenet — the promotion of the third sector — was pursued through the strengthening of the 2010 Equality Act under Cameron.

Contemporary post-liberals tend to hold debates about rights, the individual and the Common Good as if we were in some kind of vacuum, refusing to engage with the failures of previous post-liberal experiments in favour of hiding in the realm of the theoretical. But even if we are not in the true, ideologically pure “post-liberal” moment, there is no doubt that society has long since abandoned liberalism as a mode of politics. A truly liberal state would not fund the Arts Council’s propaganda, would not sign off on a morbidly expanded NHS, would oppose the 2010 Equality Act, and would condemn foreign aid.

The quaint self-delusion that we are somehow all living under the tyranny of the individual helps no one. Just like an edgy teenager blaming everything on some ill-defined neoliberal bogeyman, so too do post-liberals misunderstand the ideology they claim to be the natural successors of. Adrian Pabst is fond of quoting from Gramsci’s prison notebooks, specifically the phrase “the old world is dying, and the new struggles to be reborn”. I shall then quote from Paul Gottfried, who argues that the birth of any new order rests upon the patricide of the old. If we want to understand post-liberalism, we first have to understand its liberalism.

Liberalism is much easier to understand when we consider it as a movement in response to the preceding epoch of enlightened absolutism. This response came in the form of a set of demands for parliamentary supremacy, media freedoms, the rule of law (and equality before it), freedom of association, and the abolition of feudal patronage networks.

Today’s “liberals” have incompatible goals with those of their predecessors. They aim to provide social services and welfare benefits, eliminate social prejudice and to defend expressive and “lifestyle” freedoms. Interventionism is accepted as a fact of life, and communitarian values — as opposed to the right of the individual — hold primacy. Massive state spending financed by public debt has become an accepted fact of life post-2008, with no genuine free-market alternative being offered by either party. These are all self-described post-liberal values.

A major stumbling block in the post-liberal assessment of our current crisis is seen in their conflation of liberalism with mass democracy, concepts which were once understood to be at odds with each other. Democracy will always eat liberalism in the end if not checked, and so it did. Deplatforming and cancel culture are not the economic outcome of private power running amok, but rather the means by which militant democracy is exercised. Ergo, the post-liberal crusade against laissez-faire liberalism is the political equivalent of tilting at windmills.

There is a tendency amongst post-liberals to obsess over the long legacy of Thatcher. This is unsurprising. The two current contenders for Tory party leader — Sunak and Truss — both have made cringing declarations of loyalty to the Iron Lady, vowing to their fellow MPs and the party membership that they will embody her low-tax, deregulatory agenda. This, for many lazy columnists, is enough to present the Conservative party as neoliberal.

Push for tangible gains, rather than treacly murmurings about community

A telling statistic reveals that whilst the typical married man of 1961 paid around one-tenth of his income in tax, by 1975 he was paying around a quarter. In spite of the supposed laissez-faire revolution of the 1980s, a working man now can expect even more of his income to be taken as taxation. Does anyone expect the Conservative PM to change this?

Frankly, it doesn’t matter much what Sunak or Truss say. Neither of them will give us Thatcherism in any meaningful sense. Laissez-faire economics is more of a historical moment than a legitimate alternative to the state capitalist model adopted by almost every developed country today. Besides, pundits picking apart the nuances of the former PM’s economic strategy fail to grasp what really made Thatcher a force to be reckoned with. She observed the problems of the day and provided solutions. She didn’t mutter vaguely about the individual — she acted.

Of course, politicians rarely fully embody all the contours of the intellectual movement that drives them. Pabst admits as much, in his critique of Boris Johnson’s premiership. “A new winning consensus appeared to emerge: ‘left on the economy’ and ‘right on culture’. But it was not postliberal.” It is unlikely that we will ever see a British politician citing Antonio Genovesi as their intellectual hero. This does not mean that the British state isn’t following many of the tenets of post-liberalism.

This is seen most starkly in the state response to the Covid-19 pandemic, with the weaponising of state capacity to fulfil Common Good paradigms. In practice, this meant locking down economically productive citizens under the banner of protecting the vulnerable in communities, raising taxes on these same economically productive centres, and the massive infusion of taxpayer money into propping up cultural institutions (many of which are explicitly subversive) through the furlough scheme. The pandemic was viewed by post-liberals and government officials alike as a transformative moment. It was, although I would argue for the worst. We should all be grateful that Boris Johnson’s personal narcissism caused him to break away from the worst excesses of this communitarian groupthink which still holds much of Europe in sway.

Vague platitudes are unhelpful at the best of times. Popular discontent has long been funnelled back to support for the regime, leaving voters worse off than before. If the postliberal thinkers truly want to convince people their vision of politics is transformative, it seems prudent to push for tangible gains — say, an infrastructural overhaul starting with the rail system — rather than treacly murmurings about community and the Common Good.

We’re not particularly surprised that the news cycles are still dominated with references to events from 40 years ago, because the cultural zeitgeist has remained comfortably stuck somewhere between 1981 to 1997. This is no accident — our journalists, politicians and broadcasters reflect an ageing population. The best shot at getting yourself a public platform today comes through reworking the stale ideologies of the past whilst refusing to honestly engage with the material problems of the now. Those who seek to navigate Britain out of the quagmire of decline can do better than falling into the post-liberal trap.

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