Last year I wrote that the most characteristic feature of liberalism is its followers’ historic effort to reduce every community to a mere voluntary association. This makes it impossible to distinguish amongst different kinds of communities, such as the state, gathered church institution, marriage, family, school, business, labour union, and so forth.
Except that it’s not really impossible at all! At a basic intuitive level, we can easily tell them apart. No one coming into a classroom in session is likely to confuse those present with, say, a family or a symphony orchestra. This tells us that, like the other ideologies we’ve examined in this series, liberalism, for all its contributions to our society, in some sense falsifies the real world as we experience it from day to day.
Recognizing this has led many observers to abandon liberalism as an account of our society and to seek something different—something truer to reality. But post-liberals, as we might label them, are a diverse lot. The mere fact of moving beyond liberalism tells us nothing of a final destination. Some may embrace a form of socialism or even Marxism. Others may adhere to conservatism, although even the conservative label encompasses a variety of often mutually incompatible stances. Others may move towards a form of political authoritarianism, perhaps based on a traditional religious worldview, as in, for example, Catholic integralism.
One especially prominent post-liberal is an American professor at my alma mater, the University of Notre Dame. Patrick Deneen wrote an important book in 2018 titled, Why Liberalism Failed, which Bruce Ashford and I reviewed here. Among other things, Deneen argues that both progressive and conservative liberals, because they exalt autonomous individuals over the communities of which they are part, lead to an unhealthy statism in which the individual and the state are seen as the only relevant actors. While the one places its hope in government bureaucracy and the other in the market, the result is the same. Remarkably, Deneen’s post-liberalism has drawn the attention of the Republican Party, which was once wedded to classical liberal economics but has now embraced a form of populism.
In the United Kingdom, post-liberalism is associated with Red Tories and Blue Labour, both groups in some measure outliers within their respective parties. Red Tories find their origins here in Canada, where the likes of philosopher George Parkin Grant and constitutional expert Eugene Forsey touted a conservative vision respectful of their country’s distinctive British and French traditions while embracing communitarian politics and the welfare state. Philip Blond brought this movement to the UK with his book, Red Tory: How Left and Right have Broken Britain and How we can Fix It, and his think-tank ResPublica. Blond is less enthusiastic about the welfare state and prefers to emphasize the importance of local community, something most post-liberals have also embraced.
Blue Labour is a movement within the larger Labour Party that combines a working-class social conservatism with a renewed emphasis on its support base in the trades unions. It stands against Tony Blair’s New Labour movement, recalling the party to its foundational commitments.
Not all post-liberals are localists, of course. American-Israeli political philosopher Yoram Hazoni has founded a movement called national conservatism, whose distinguishing feature is a belief that the nation-state represents the best way to organize people politically. This conviction they hold out against localists on the one hand and supranational federalists and imperialists on the other. They dislike the European Union and think Brexit a laudable renewal of national sovereignty. However, they have difficulty articulating the difference between the American Federalists of the late 18th century, whose consolidating efforts they applaud, and the 20th century architects of the EU, of whom they disapprove. Why the different assessments of two similar historical efforts? On this they are not clear.
Critics of post-liberals often accuse them of opposing democratic procedures, which they insist on calling liberal democracy. This label allows them to associate liberal ideology with the very institutions that permit citizens’ participation in their political communities. Anyone questioning the ideology then becomes complicit in undermining the very procedures enabling them to vote and to enjoy such liberties as freedom of speech, the press, religion, and so forth. There may be something to this critique with respect to populist leaders who have come to power in Hungary, Poland, Brazil, and the United States. However, in most cases such a critique is misleading in that it conflates a particular set of political structures with a vision of political life that seems increasingly out of touch with lived reality.
What is the future of post-liberalism? Because it is not a single phenomenon with a unifying vision, there is no ready answer to this question. Although liberalism’s followers have demonstrated its dark side, especially in their ongoing efforts to privatize traditional religious faith while failing to acknowledge the religious character of their own ultimate commitments, liberalism is unlikely to go away soon. This is not for lack of plausible alternatives. Nevertheless, when people become aware of the defects of one ideology, rather than repudiating ideology altogether, they tend to fasten onto another ideological vision proving similarly inadequate over the long term. Liberal individualism does not do justice to community. What then? Many gravitate to nationalism with its excessive attachment to nation. Many of these same people flock to a populist leader promising salvation from liberalism’s ills but with a weak attachment to the rule of law.
However, the global Christian community has resources pointing the world to a better way. What is that better way? One that is anchored in the real world, recognizing the legitimate places of both individuals and the multiplicity of communities in which they are embedded. One that refrains from making too much of any of these at the expense of the others but seeks justice for all. And one which we hope will persuade people that, if making an idol of any of these harms the social fabric, they will find life’s true source in the God who creates, redeems, and sustains us in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.