April 16, 2020


The new intellectuals of the American right: In political and media circles, an array of thinkers - national conservatives, integralists, traditionalists, and post-liberals - are crossing ideological boundaries.  (NICK BURNS, 4/16/20, New Statesman)

What is happening on the American intellectual scene? In Washington and New York, it is increasingly common to hear people say they are enemies of neoliberalism. They think liberal democracy is insufficient. They are in favour of government intervention in the economy, sceptical of free-trade deals and long to demolish what they call "zombie Reaganism". 

These people are not Bernie Sanders supporters. In fact, they are not on the left at all. They are Catholic professors, or writers for US conservative magazines. They run tech companies in California or work for Republican senators on Capitol Hill. Meet the new American right. 

If you would like to find yourself a place in the vanguard of American conservatism these days, you can choose from a widening panoply of neologisms to describe yourself: national conservative, integralist, traditionalist, post-liberal, you might even be welcome if you are a Marxist. Anything just so long as you're not a libertarian. 

The once dominant intellectual lodestars of the US right - Friedrich Hayek, John Locke, Milton Friedman, Ayn Rand and Adam Smith - are out. The ideas of Carl Schmitt, James Burnham, Michel Houellebecq and Christopher Lasch are in. Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville are barely clinging on. What happened? 

One explanation for the American right's leftward turn lies with Catholic opinion. Resentment was already building among US Catholic conservatives by the time of Donald Trump's election in 2016. From around 2013, as Pope Francis appeared to be compromising on certain social issues, such as acceptance of homosexuality, Catholics began to suspect the grand bargain of the American conservative movement since the 1950s - free markets combined with social conservatism - was heavily tilted in favour of the former. They saw a Republican Party guided less by religion than by money: money which seemed little disposed to advocate on behalf of their beliefs. They saw themselves as foot-soldiers in a culture war their party seemed content to lose. Even worse: for the privilege of fighting, they had been obliged not to think too hard about what Catholic social teaching might have to say on issues such healthcare, for fear of offending the jealous god of the free market. 

A demonstration of this anger came in 2018, when University of Notre Dame professor Patrick Deneen published a provocatively titled book, Why Liberalism Failed. By "liberalism", Deneen did not mean the American progressivism embodied by Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, but the entire liberal project, from the 17th-century philosopher John Locke to the postwar theorist John Rawls. By replacing old commitments to community, religion or tradition with pure self-interest, Deneen said, liberalism atomised citizens, rendering them helpless, nihilistic and alone. 

The book quickly became a touchstone for conservative discussions in the US about liberalism. Instead of a threat to American liberal democracy, perhaps Trump was merely the latest symptom of a defect the liberal project had contracted at birth - the rage emanating from communities hollowed out by a corrosive liberalism. 

As a balm for these social ills, Deneen advocated retreat from national politics into the enclaves of small, rural communities, echoing other writers on the American right, such as Rod Dreher, a senior editor at the American Conservative. But more recently, Deneen has taken an interest in populism, hobnobbing with the Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán in November 2019 and proposing a politics of "aristopopulism" - the notion, borrowed from the 16th-century Florentine philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli, that friction between the masses and the elite is the best way to ensure that neither class dominates the other, and that material inequality remains at a moderate level. 

Deneenism, however, came up against a fiercer and more eccentric assortment of right-wing monks and bloggers who march under the banner of "integralism". The integralists demand that the constitutional separation between church and state be smashed, so that the state may defer to the church on spiritual matters. The state's reach, argue integralists, should be combined with Catholic teaching on social issues: "Medicare for all, abortion for none."

The high priest of the integralist movement is the 51-year-old Harvard law professor Adrian Vermeule. Though Vermeule agrees with Deneen's diagnosis of liberal malady, his proposed remedy is not Benedictine retreat but Constantinian takeover. A leading expert on the American administrative state, he knows it is a staggeringly powerful tool, capable of swaying the actions of millions. He believes it would only take a few loyalists, well enough placed within the national bureaucracy, to steer the whole hulking contraption in the general direction of the summum bonum. 

Haven't read the Deneen book yet, but have heard him on a few podcasts and it made me wonder if I'd misunderstood what liberalism is and even more curious about why these guys all hate John Locke so much (besides his protestantism).  Here's the conclusion of C. B. Macpherson's introduction to the Second Treatise of Government:

As a liberal ideology it has almost everything that could be desired. It starts with free and equal individuals none of whom have any claim of jurisdiction over others: this is a characteristic and essential assumption of the proponents of a liberal as opposed to a feudal or patriarchal or absolutist state.  It acknowledges that these individuals are self-interested and contentious enough to need a powerful state to keep them in order, but it avoids the Hobbesian conclusion that the state must have absolute and irrevocable power: it does this by attributing to men a moral capacity to discover and generally stay within a natural law which forbids harming others: this too is essential to the liberal case, and of course is flattering and agreeable. Moreover, Locke makes a unique and ingenious case for a natural right of unlimited private property, with which society and government are not entitled to interfere: no-one, before or since, has come near his skill in moving from a limited and equal to an unlimited and unequal property right by invoking rationality and consent.

The confluence of his main lines of argument about government and about property right provides an eminently usable ideological underpinning for the modern liberal capitalist state.

And, from the text, here is Locke explaining republican liberty:

THE natural liberty of man is to be free from any superior power on earth, and not to be under the will or legislative authority of man, but to have only the law of nature for his rule. The liberty of man, in society, is to be under no other legislative power, but that established, by consent, in the commonwealth; nor under the dominion of any will, or restraint of any law, but what that legislative shall enact, according to the trust put in it. Freedom then is not what Sir Robert Filmer tells us, Observations, A. 55. a liberty for every one to do what he lists, to live as he pleases, and not to be tied by any laws: but freedom of men under government is, to have a standing rule to live by, common to every one of that society, and made by the legislative power erected in it...

In short, liberalism is expressly organized around the idea that, due to unchecked self-interest, man was previously atomised, helpless, nihilistic and alone, and that the remedy is to organize into an anti-individualistic republican society where all are empowered by their participation in law-making and the equal protection/application of said laws.

So the criticism is exactly backwards; what the Right is actually objecting to is that, given our republican liberty, liberal societies have not privileged some groups over others not chosen to adopt the ideas of certain minority cliques.  And, since these groups have failed to convince the electorate that they should do so (nor the legal system that such privileging is consistent with republican liberty), they have no alternative but to turn to ant-democratic/authoritarian means of achieving their ideologies.  Well, that's not quite right.  Alternatively the could move to nations that adhere more closely to the sort of totalitarianism they desire or, like the rest of us, they could live their own lives in the fashion they prefer, to the extent that they transgress our uniform laws and do not interfere with the liberties of others, even though it means that not every member of society will adhere to that same life-style.  

There must be some reason that neither of those alternatives is satisfactory, and for that reason we turn again to Eric Hoffer:

Free men are aware of the imperfection inherent in human affairs, and they are willing to fight and die for that which is not perfect. They know that basic human problems can have no final solutions, that our freedom, justice, equality, etc. are far from absolute, and that the good life is compounded of half measures, compromises, lesser evils, and gropings toward the perfect.  The rejection of approximations and the insistence on absolutes are the manifestation of a nihilism that loathes freedom, tolerance, and equity.  
Their absolutism makes them the nihilists.


Posted by at April 16, 2020 6:57 PM