On the Philosophical Foundations of Liberalism and Post-Liberalism
In Why Liberalism Failed, according to Patrick Deneen, liberalism, from its foundations in Locke’s Second Treatise to the work of John Rawls posits man as entirely alone, unattached and isolated in a timeless, placeless state of nature. Community is not something man is born into, families don’t exist, and the many layers of civil institutions and groups that comprise society are irrelevant.
Inheritance is something to deny and escape — bonds that tie of any sort a barrier to the full realisation of freedom and the maximisation of autonomy. Relations are replaced by contracts, made and broken through consent informed by man’s supposed rationality. Traditions as a roadmap for existence have no place and are delegitimised by liberalism’s drive to freedom from constraint.
Liberalism, as Ryzsard Legutko argues, shares with Marxism the teleological drive to a final state of total escape from the constraints of physical, human reality. This heaven is to be brought on earth through constant political churn and change. Liberalism and Communism are each as revolutionary as each other in the final assessment.
As Reinhold Neibuhr put it, the former is a form of “soft utopianism,” whose faith in progress is its driving force. Liberalism fails “to understand the tragic character of human history.” For Niebuhr, liberalism believes in progress as the perfection of man’s nature: “faith in man; faith in his capacity to subdue nature, and faith that the subjection of nature achieves life’s final good.” The veil of ignorance that Rawls employs to demonstrate its inevitability is reflective of liberalism’s blindness. This blindness, he argued, “does not see the perennial difference between human actions and aspirations… the inevitable tragedy of human existence, the irreducible irrationality of human behavior, and the tortuous character of human history.”
Material progress is mistaken for moral growth, an illusion shown as delusion by the 20th century. “Since 1914,” Niebuhr writes, “one tragic experience has followed another, as if history had been designed to refute the vain delusions of modern man.” Even despite this, liberalism continues on, unaffected by impingements of reality. Coronavirus might have demonstrated the limits of man and of liberalism itself. But it seems not, given our faith in scientistic technocracy for our salvation. This reveals a spiritual crisis, for as: “the modern world does not believe in sin. Our secular age has rejected that doctrine more whole-heartedly than any other Christian doctrine.”
None of this accounts for our fallen humanity, our nature “both strong and weak, both free and bound, both blind and far-seeing.” This blindness of human frailty extends to social fragility, civilisation and social comity resting upon “a precarious equilibrium of social forces. This equilibrium may degenerate into anarchy if there is no strong organizing center in it. And it may degenerate into tyranny if the organizing center destroys the vitality of the parts.” The anarcho-tyranny of the last few months, with riots unstopped but lockdown infractions clamped down on demonstrates this for all to see.
As Deneen argues, “Liberalism has failed–not because it fell short, but because it was true to itself. It failed because it has succeeded.” A political philosophy created to “foster greater equity, defend a pluralist tapestry of different cultures and beliefs, protect human dignity, and, of course, expand liberty, in practice generates titanic inequality, enforces uniformity and homogeneity, fosters material and spiritual degradation, and undermines freedom.”
In questing for ever greater freedom, enabled and enforced through the state in politics and the market in economics, liberalism leaves us both less free and poorer, in spirit if not in income. The individualism of our liberal order promises freedom from constraint but delivers servitude to loneliness, leaving us bereft of relationships that bring both the blessing and burden of living to full-life. Social liberty is license, enslavement to carnality, while economic liberty is greed, enslavement to acquisitive venality. Loss, loneliness and lowered life-prospects for more and more are the outcomes.
Post-Liberalism looks at this wasteland and seeks another way. Moving beyond the liberal dispensation does not entail ejecting the beneficial achievements of liberalism. As Deneen writes: “moving beyond [it] is not to discard some of liberalism’s main commitments — especially those deepest longings of the West, political liberty and human dignity — but to reject the false turn it made in its imposition of an ideological remaking of the world in the image of a false anthropology.” To paraphrase Ozzy Osbourne in Supernaut, Post-Liberals have seen the future and we’ve left it behind. Post-Liberalism is, as Unherd columnist Mary Harrington said in an online seminar held by Res Publica in October, “what you get when you have conservative instincts but there’s nothing left to conserve.” It is a worldview of reconstruction and recovery, restoring the ability to live fulfilled lives in common with others.
Post-Liberalism agrees with the millennia-old wisdom that man is a social creature and is not meant to be alone. It is not about the removal of limits to our unchained desires, but the exact opposite: the chaining of our untutored desires to live lives of purpose in concert with those around us, starting in the family where we learn the language of identity (as Mary Eberstadt puts it).
For Harrington, liberalism — for women in particular — meant the removal of constraint by parental and familial bonds, externalising the cost of motherhood to low-status women lower down the social order. As she argued in last month’s webinar, modern corporate feminism is inherently aristocratic, allowing a prosperous 10% to pursue their dreams of bodily autonomy through economic means, marketizing motherhood. In reality, the very physicality of motherhood itself repudiates the claims of autonomy made by liberalism.
She further asserted that motherhood reinforces the irreducible interdependence of human relations, our reliance on and need for each other revealed here as nowhere else. Care for children is the foundation to other sorts of care, as Madeleine Bunting also writes. Care sits at the intersection of interdependence, inheritance, and legacy. Care reveals as nothing else does the linked nature of humanity, the interdependence we have on each other.
None of this is taken into account by a liberal worldview that prizes choice and autonomy over any sense of duty and gratitude. Care, rooted in the most fundamental human relationality, cannot be easily itemised or monetised — but liberalism is blind to this as so much else. Those who give and receive care are seen as less worthy, because the thing that is being done cannot be calculated in a rational system that breaks people down into economic widgets. Motherhood, old-age and disability, cannot serve the market by increasing productivity and GDP. They are less useful to society, and therefore represent loss of human value.
However, as Harrington points out, we belong to each other as much as we do to ourselves. Indeed, it is only in this reciprocal belonging — as Eberstadt drawing on Wittgenstein argues — that we can even begin to understand who we are. Care cultivates identity, and a strong sense of self can cultivate care for those who endowed us with this sense, and towards the wider world, the context in which we situate ourselves. The power of relationships, buried by liberalism, can still rise to the surface of our existence. The rebellion against what Harrington calls “Clinton feminism” may be a sign of this.
The most fundamental element of relationship is that of a sexual nature. Louise Perry (in the same webinar) argued that the seemingly bizarre agreement on the place of sex in the relationship between men and women that one can see between radical feminists and traditionalist Catholics is — perhaps not so strange after all. There is fundamental agreement between these two disparate tribes that freedom for itself is not the reality nor the goal of life.
Under liberalism, according to Perry, we have witnessed what Aaron Sibarium calls “sexual disenchantment,” where any strictures and constraints on the self that make sex special, that sacralise it and therefore something to cherish, are removed by the need for ever-greater autonomy. As Eberstadt says, the commodification of sex has created a sexual consumer culture, where women are reduced to options in buffet of sexualised bodies, stripped of their essential humanity. Sibarium writes: “If the scientific revolution disenchanted the world, a la Weber, the sexual revolution disenchanted sex in the process of deregulating it, with free ‘love’ a sterile spin-off of the free market.”
This sexual disenchantment, to Perry, is against our deepest nature and desires, and therefore cannot continue. Intimacy and relationality are a basic part of what makes us human and should be emphasised as central to sexual relationships. We must retain (to return to Deneen’s point about liberalism’s benefits) women’s freedoms while pushing back against the instrumentalization inherent to the world of liberal sexual disenchantment.
At bottom, Post-Liberalism argues for the reality of human attachment, to each other in the present, to memory of the past and obligation towards the future, Liberty is not license, but the ability to fulfill our human need to live with others, within limits that provide a framework for life. The market serves us, not the other way around. Human flourishing rests in the ability to pursue lives of dignity and purpose in community.
Post-Liberalism’s view of human anthropology, of our origins and ends is opposed to the aristocratic atomisation of liberalism. Life may be tragic, the vale through which we make life’s journey one of tears. But this realism is balanced with the hope of redemption, with the sun breaking through the clouds to warm us in the knowledge of hope, that life is worth living despite its trials, and that being born was itself a blessing, a blessing we can affirm through the consequences of living.
The beginnings of the philosophical reorientation seen in Harrington and Perry’s contributions must be matched by implementation of policies that tangibly improve people’s lives. Journalist Paul Embery and former advisor to Theresa May Nick Timothy (also present) were looking at the situations on the contemporary left and right respectively. Their analysis is needed to ground the metaphysical in the real, and to avoid endless, self-referential abstraction that grows increasingly divorced from the reality of people’s experience of their day-to-day lives.
We’ve arguably spent so long under a system of government by technocratic managerialism that our elites — a point also made by Matthew Goodwin — have actually forgotten how to exercise power in the name of governing. This makes it especially challenging to implement any new vision going forward — thus our inability to see a way to navigate between the extreme particularism of leftist identity politics and the weightless universalism of neoliberalism. Identitarianism, an exclusivist politics that takes the importance of identity and turns into a weapon for a retribalisation of society. And yet, all of this has its roots in the liberalism held up as the solution to the problem. Woke and far-right identitarianism leaves people adrift on the tides of liquid modernity a sense of community, meaning, and purpose. It gives them a sense of destiny.
This is the reaction to what Leo Strauss saw as the insidious, deadening forces of gentle nihilism. A liberal universalism that denies any sense of particularity in attachment or affection is insufficient. As Timothy argues, universalism reached through the particularity of our experiences, place and time — what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks called “the dignity of difference” — is one answer to this.
Part of the solution is to realise that these groups based in immutable characteristics substitute for the mediating institutions of civil society torn apart by 40 tears of neoliberal economics. Both Goodwin and Timothy state that the collapse of these civic institutions in favour of liberal meritocratic governance has been a disaster for solidarity between classes and groups. Shoring up what Christopher Lasch called “the third places of communal life” must be a priority of government.
We’re right where we’ve started: man as connected creature, born into a social ecosystem that like all ecosystems needs cultivation, maintenance, and in our time, new growth. Ultimately our embrace of the limits of time, place, and community and the hope they paradoxically provide, rests on a foundation of gratitude for life itself. Post-Liberalism is the politics of life as gift. Everything flows from there.