Dear Reader (including those of you with odd Christmas traditions),
Having gotten the jocularity out of my system with Wednesday’s “news”letter on “Sandwich Shop Monopoly,” I’m going to veer hard in a different direction. This is going to be a pretty eggheady rumination. If that’s not your cup of tea, that’s fine. I’ll talk to you next week.
Yesterday I gave a speech in defense of liberalism. I’m not going to reprise or reprint that here. But the gist of it was that the rise in “post-liberalism” on the right can be understood as right-wingers joining a game already in progress. Indeed, the rise of illiberalism on the right is often explicitly justified as a necessary response to the illiberalism of the left. We have to fight them the way they fight us. Complying with liberal, democratic, rules is a recipe for defeat.
Even the term “post-liberalism” is in a very real sense a branding effort to distinguish it from the left-wing versions of the same project. It’s the Pepsi to their Coke. After all, there has been an effort on the left to get past, transcend, replace, or inter liberalism for a very long time. We just haven’t called it “post-liberalism.” We’ve called it lots of things, but a good shorthand is simply anti-liberalism. After all, if you don’t like liberalism—and think you have a good idea for what to replace it with—you, too, are a post-liberal by another name.
What do I mean by liberalism? Pretty much the same thing the anti- and post-liberals mean. The only difference is that I like liberalism, and I don’t describe it in the tendentious and invidious ways its enemies do. So, in short, liberalism is a system of political order that recognizes the sovereignty of the individual as well as a slew of rights that flow from that sovereignty: property rights, free speech, free association, freedom to worship, etc. The right to a fair trial is a liberal idea. It’s also a deeply moral idea. Democracy is partly a liberal precept, but it’s also a tool for preserving liberalism. A liberal polity without democracy will eventually descend into authoritarianism, oligarchy, or some form of kakistocracy.
All of this points to my most fundamental disagreement with foes of liberalism in all parties. I think liberalism is not only a morally rich political philosophy at scale, it’s morally superior to all of its alternatives. Freedom and self-rule are both moral goods, and they’re also the best way to improve the lives of the most people. If you don’t find my short summary of liberalism satisfactory, I suggest reading Cass Sunstein’s precis in the New York Times.
Little platoons vs. extended order, again.
What do I mean by “at scale”? I mean that there may be better systems than liberalism suited for the wants and needs of individual people and communities, but those systems cannot work for large populations of people in a modern society. For instance, the family is not a liberal institution. It’s got bits and pieces that look more like communitarianism, socialism, communism, and authoritarianism than liberalism.
This is Hayek’s point about the microcosm and macrocosm. In the microcosm –or “little platoons” of everyday life—the rules are different. In the family, we don’t charge our children for food, and we do not present our sick parents with a bill for services rendered. In the platoon, soldiers do not risk their lives for their comrades because some legal contract requires it. We do favors for friends and make sacrifices for them out of moral, biological, and other, deeper, imperatives. But these commitments do not scale for a whole society, never mind a nation. It is a basic human desire to live in a family, a tribe, a small group of shared meaning and connectedness.
The problem is that such things can be achieved only at the most local of levels. A nation of 332 million people cannot live with the rules of a family or fraternity. Liberalism is a system for large, diverse, polities. That’s why pluralism is essential to liberalism. Different communities will be based on different commitments and these communities deserve respect and autonomy so long as they adhere to the same principle with regard to other communities. Also, they must abide by some fundamental liberal precepts. I’m fine with leaving cults and communes alone, so long as their members’ fundamental rights are not violated and the members have the right to exit these communities when they want. We should also allow for a profusion of communities and institutions, because that is where good character and citizenship is actually formed.
The long counterrevolution.
Back to my point. I’ve been reading up on the Revolutions of 1848, a subject I’ve long ignored because it’s all so knotty and confusing. But I think the 1840s can be described as the dawn of post-liberalism. By the 1840s, liberalism—and the industrial revolution—had established themselves as part of the New Order. And those who did not like the New Order started to rebel against it. Some of the rebels were liberals who—rightly—objected to the fact that the premises of liberalism were not being fully realized. Democracy was all the rage, but few could vote. The rights of man were touted everywhere, but few felt like they had the ability to actually exercise them. But other rebels detested liberalism itself. They wanted some other system that answered “the social question.”
A lot of historians point to the rise in inequality, poor working conditions in the factories, and other material deprivations as the drivers of this unrest. Obviously, that’s a huge part of the story. But I think the way this story is told often distorts the specific motivations driving protest and revolt. People were getting richer and healthier in the 19th century, which is why European populations more than doubled. What offended people was the fact that some people were getting richer a lot faster than other people, and this aroused all of the outrage against “exploitation,” “greed,” etc. Also, traditional communities were unraveling as serfdom and serf-like arrangements were dismantled. People flocked to cities that offered plenty of work, but were often plagued by terrible living and working conditions.
These twin dynamics, the unraveling of the old social order and the unraveling of the old economic order, brought forth two major -isms: socialism and nationalism. As psychological, instinctual impulses, socialism and nationalism can be understood to be much older than liberalism. (What were prehistoric tribes other than “nationalistic” and “socialistic” enterprises?) But as organized philosophical and political projects, both are in meaningful respects younger than liberalism. That’s because they emerged as reactions to liberalism. The Jacobins and then Napoleon midwifed nationalism into existence by imposing the French system on conquered lands. This elicited an antibody, Romantic resistance that gave birth to the first nationalist movements. As Joseph Schumpeter wrote, this Romantic rebellion “arose almost immediately as a part of the general reaction against the rationalism of the eighteenth century that set in after the revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.”
There are neo-nationalists who will bristle at this, believing that nationalism is the authentic and natural way of organizing human beings. All I can say for now is, they’re wrong.
Okay, I’ll say a little more. For most of the last few thousand years, “nations” were subunits of dynasties of one sort or another. Families ruled different polities, some of them nations, some mere enclaves of various “peoples.” And these dynasties traded these possessions, sometimes by force of arms, sometimes through cash exchange. I mean, when various European regimes didn’t have an available heir to the throne on hand, they didn’t automatically look for, say, an Englishman for the English throne. They often did an executive search for some other royal from another country to rule them. Not very “nationalistic” if you ask me. The idea that singular, discreet, “nations” have—or should have—self-rule is a very, very, modern concept. As Lord Acton noted in 1862, “In the old European system, the rights of nationalities were neither recognized by governments nor asserted by the people.” Heck, the idea of “self-determination” was a radical, new age idea whose time had come at the end of World War I.
Marx wasn’t the first post-liberal, but he can still be understood as the father of one branch of post-liberalism (which may explain why so many right-wing post-liberals frequently pay homage to Marxism). His theory of historical materialism was fundamentally an argument about moving to the next stage of history. Marx had celebrated the rise of liberalism because it cleared away the old order of aristocracy. But he believed that liberalism should be a temporary thing. Now, he argued, it’s time to move on to the next chapter: the ages of socialism and, ultimately, communism. The aristocracy of wealth created by liberalism had to go. And that would happen when the proletariat achieved “class consciousness”—i.e. agreed with him—and overthrew the bourgeois order.
Published in 1848, Marx declared in the Communist Manifesto, “The modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society has not done away with class antagonisms. It has but established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of the old ones.” And he concluded:
The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.
Marxism from the outset was post-liberalism. The Bolsheviks were post-liberals, even though Russia never enjoyed a real liberal moment to move on from. The descendants of Marxism, some of whom reject the M-word while others use it without having the faintest familiarity with Marxism, have been post-liberals, in whole or in part, ever since.
Identity politics is post-liberal. All of the talk about “white supremacy” is post-liberal. Ditto critical race theory, post-colonialism, and most of the sociological and ideological pathologies that often get described as “wokeness.”
The idea that some groups deserve the benefit of different rules or a suspension of the existing rules, simply by an accident of birth or ancestry, is antithetical to liberalism. The idea that my speech must be held hostage to your hegemonic control of the meaning of words is illiberal. Good manners are necessary to liberalism and a decent society. Saying “you’re a racist” for not using other peoples’ shibboleths—Latinx, etc.—is illiberal.
All of the talk about “white supremacy” is as good an example of the paranoid style in American politics as any of the Bircheresque squeals about globalists and the “Deep State” of the New Right. Most left-of-center intellectuals won’t identify it as such, though, because they are doubly ensorcelled by two myths: the “paranoid style” is definitionally right-wing and because any indictment of white racism (but only white racism) must automatically be granted the benefit of the doubt of moral and intellectual seriousness.
I could expand on this at great length, but I’ll just point to a single Washington Post op-ed from last year to illustrate the point. Last winter, a lot of people were losing their minds over the “Freedom Convoy” protest over COVID restrictions by Canadian truckers. A University of Pennsylvania Ph.D. candidate wrote an essay for the Post titled, “The Ottawa trucker convoy is rooted in Canada’s settler colonial history.” The author “explained” that:
The notion of “freedom” was historically and remains intertwined with Whiteness, as historian Tyler Stovall has argued. The belief that one is entitled to freedom is a key component of white supremacy.
It’s funny, I could have sworn that the belief that one is entitled to freedom was a key component of abolition and the civil rights movement. The “white supremacy” fad—which, if liberalism survives, will likely be remembered as an example of elite moral panic—hinges on a Manichean, paranoid, monocausal theory of society that reduces all problems to a simplistic story of oppressor and oppressed.
In this light, the whole notion of “settler colonial history” is an updating of the Romantic counterrevolution against the Enlightenment from two centuries ago. Liberalism has been reduced to an imperialist project imposed by white people—or white men—on the authentic, natural, systems of indigenous or oppressed peoples. You can find this view all over the place in the riots of hatred against Israel these days. But you can also find it closer to home. The idea that black kids who excel in school are merely “acting white” is as sinister and malevolent an idea as the more familiar and demonized forms of racism progressives are—rightly—so eager to condemn. It’s a stylized version of David Duke’s view of black people.
But let’s get back to the paranoid style, which is another way of saying conspiratorial thinking. White supremacy paranoia is conspiratorial because it starts from the assumption that other people are responsible for the problems of the “oppressed.” It’s a way to rob the oppressed of agency and put all the blame on others. The same goes for the equally paranoid theories of the New Right about “globalists,” “the deep state,” Big Tech (when not run by Elon Musk), and in some quarters, “Jewish financiers.” They all work from the assumption that there are other humans out there who are oppressing other people—and profiting from that oppression.
This is the paranoid style and you can see manifestations of it everywhere, from the “do you know what time it is?” MAGA faithful to the left-wing radicals, to the Zionist hunters on campuses and elsewhere. This “Flight 93” mindset suffuses our political and online culture. Rather than reprise those arguments, I’ll quote from Richard Hofstadter’s Paranoid Style in American Politics:
“As a member of the avant-garde who is capable of perceiving the conspiracy before it is fully obvious to an as yet unaroused public, the paranoid is a militant leader. He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated—if not from the world, at least from the theatre of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention. This demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals, and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid’s sense of frustration. Even partial success leaves him with the same feeling of powerlessness with which he began, and this in turn only strengthens his awareness of the vast and terrifying quality of the enemy he opposes.”
In fairness to some of the post-liberals on the right and critical theorists on the left, their paranoia is removed by one or two degrees from cartoonish notions of star chambers of string-pullers. They have a more traditionally radical, Rousseauian, indictment: The system itself is designed to benefit the undeserving ruling class and the ruling class is merely acting on its interests to preserve the liberal status quo.
But the interesting thing—to me at least—that unites all the foes of liberalism on the left and the right is the unavoidable psychological projection involved. They all argue for replacing the existing ruling class with an anointed ruling class of their choosing (while pointing to the same desire in their enemies as proof of their demonic threat).
In one sense this is unavoidable, they argue. Someone’s got to be in charge. The psychological projection comes in from the whole concept of a ruling class to begin with.
Here’s the thing. Liberalism doesn’t have rulers.
Sure, we have government officials. But they’re elected—temporarily. Or they’re appointed by elected people. With the exception of some judges, the appointed ones don’t have lifetime appointments, and even the ones that do can be removed (not deposed, removed). But all of these officials are constrained by law and the Constitution in what they can do. Save in some national emergency—and maybe not even then—the president cannot order you to do anything. Police—a very local government position—can tell you what to do sometimes, but they need a lawful reason or they lose their jobs. And the people ultimately decide what the law is, because here the people rule.
But some people cannot accept that this is the way liberalism works. There just has to be someone behind the scenes running things without regard to the voters or the law. Big donors, Jews, globalists, white supremacists, corporate fat cats, somewhere, somehow, must really be calling the shots. After all, the paranoid illiberals see “oppression” all over the place, so there must be oppressors behind a curtain somewhere. And this belief, that the hidden reality is the real one, compels these illiberals to think our existing secret rulers should be supplanted by rulers of their choosing.
Since the dawn of liberalism, the idea that people in liberal societies are largely—not entirely, but largely—responsible for their fate in life is too terrible to contemplate. And the idea that the people, plural, are ultimately responsible for the government they have is scary. That’s the thing about freedom, it asks more of the people—individually and collectively—than some are willing to tolerate.
Various & Sundry
Canine update: Zoë went back to the vet for a post-op checkup. Everything is healing nicely. Alas, it seems like she’ll never get a handle on the traditional jerky treats, and it’s too sad to see her try. We’ll give it another shot when she’s fully healed. But we’re on the lookout for a new treat. I was in Dallas for most of Wednesday and Thursday and the girls were happy to see me last night. Pippa, however, is trying to claim that, lacking video evidence of treat time, I should compensate them with double treats. Pippa, who does a mean Elvis impersonation, has been hanging out a lot with Clover, aka “Dark Pippa,” and someone had fun with Photoshop. She also debuted her nighttime collar. Zoë has one too, but Pippa needs it more because she goes leashless so much, and she’s little. She also still insists on belly rubs before going on walks. Gracie endures amid the beasts.
And now the weird stuff.