Postliberals – those who argue that the emphasis of contemporary liberalism on individual autonomy and self-fashioning, progress, consent and abstract rights has begun to have deleterious consequences for our social fabric and flourishing – are very good at writing critiques. Prophetic denunciations of atomisation, social decline and excessive individualism are their life-blood, whether aimed at pro-free market right-liberals or socially ‘progressive’ left-liberals, or both. And, to be, fair, the critique is valuable and often perceptive, and, let’s be honest, it’s very satisfying to be the Jeremiah figure righteously denouncing the sins of Israel.
What is harder is outlining a constructive, positive strategy and formulating proposals for correcting liberal over-reach and its consequences. This is, however, what Patrick Deneen aims to do in his new book, Regime Change, which I am delighted to announce will be published in the UK by Forum.
Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed was one of the very best of the critiques of liberalism: a tightly-argued, devastating anatomisation of the contradictions and paradoxes of the orthodox ideology of the west. Even Barack Obama conceded that Deneen’s challenge was one that liberals needed an answer to.
Now, Deneen has written his follow-up, and it starts the hard task of charting an alternative that can rebuild our fraying civic bonds, our sense of mutual obligations and community, and advance the common good. To do so, Deneen mines the resources of both pre-liberal political philosophy – particularly Aristotle and the idea of the ‘mixed constitution’ – and 18th and 19th century conservatism, particularly the insights of Burke and Disraeli.
Striking back against both right and left liberalism, which have generally been sceptical of the engrained conservatism and traditionalism of the masses and formed an elite determined to impose progress on them for the purposes of ‘liberation’ – whether in the form of free market discipline or ultra-social liberalism – he argues that we need a new form of mixed constitution. A new elite, which values the institutions and social fabric that allows the majority to live meaningful, stable lives, must be formed in order to ally itself with the masses against the self-serving and unpopular managerial classes who currently rule the roost, be they hedge-fund managers or diversity, equity and inclusion officers. He describes this new elite as ‘a self-conscious aristoi who understand that their main role and purpose in the social order is to secure the foundational goods that make possible human flourishing for ordinary people: the central goods of family, community, good work, a culture that preserves and encourages order and continuity, and support for religious belief and institutions.’
Achieving this will require an alliance between such a new elite and a new multi-racial, multi-ethnic working class party that can perceive the reality: the working classes, of whatever race, have common interests that transcend attempts by progressives (and indeed often the populist right) to divide them over race. Specifically, he argues they have a common interest in supporting both a form of social conservatism that gives them the benefits of family life, an inherited culture and religious consolation, and a form of left-leaning economic populism that gives them the chance of high-quality, well-paid work and breaks up the overbearing concentrations of economic power that currently degrade and exploit them.
Deneen goes on to outline a whole range of policy proposals for making this happen – I won’t spoil the fun, but sufficient to say it’s the sort of agenda that will make both the corporate right and the progressive ‘left’ squeal.
Deneen calls his basic idea of an alliance between the masses and a new elite ‘aristopopulism’, and, paradoxical as it sounds, he makes a powerful case. In strikes me that it’s very much in the spirit of an old idea of the natural alliance between the aristocracy and the masses, who have rather more in common than either do with a new middle-class elite imbued with the spirit of utilitarian calculation and self-interest (usually carefully veiled in terms of progress, ‘universal’ values and faux-egalitarianism). It brought to mind a rather trenchant quotation from Disraeli that always sticks in my mind:
‘Liberal opinions are the opinions of those who would be free from certain constraints and regulations, from a certain dependence and duty which are deemed necessary for the general or popular welfare. Liberal opinions are very convenient opinions for the rich and powerful. They ensure enjoyment and are opposed to self-sacrifice.’
The book does, of course, raise a harder question still – how does one go about making Deneen’s positive vision a reality? That, I suspect, is a debate that will be provoked by this erudite, well-written and thoughtful book.
George Owers, Editorial Director
Regime Change: Toward a Postliberal Future is due to publish on 6th July. The views of this blogpost are not necessarily the views of Patrick Deneen.