Postliberal(ism) and straw-men
A response to Bias Magazine’s recent articles on postliberalism
I was for a very brief period asked to contribute to Bias Magazine when its parent committee, the Institute for Christian Socialism, was first forming. In a short time, I quietly ended my flirtation for a number of reasons that will become more apparent momentarily.
Let me begin with a rather Marx-y term, reification, because the two articles I’m reviewing both refer to, as do some of its proponents, postliberalism. The articles are The Perils of Catholic Postliberalism, by Matt McManus, and Inside the Postliberal Mind, by James Chappel.
The minute we attach the ism-suffix to anything, we risk making the leap from somewhere to everywhere/nowhere by treating that -ism as a thing (reifying it). I myself am in danger, by using the term, of turning postliberalism — which serves as a kind of terminological attractant to people like me, as I’ll explain — into a thing for which one instantiation can stand for all its parts. Which is exactly what the two articles in question have done, and in doing so they’ve committed a rather obvious and regrettable straw man fallacy.
It’s not surprising, given that Bias Magazine has itself become an organ of exactly what postliberalism critiques. By postliberalism, here, I mean both the theological postliberalism associated with the “Yale School” and the nascent convergence of people from the traditional “left” and “right” who’ve increasingly found themselves homeless as “the right” has retreated into political cults around moral deformities like Donald Trump and “the left” has fallen for a toxic and ever more inquisitional form of cultural neoliberalism.
There’s no doubt that there is an Ellulian aspect to these developments, that is, these emergent phenomena are overdetermined by the cancerous growth and unaccountable hegemony of the internet and social media; but we could go through that door into books which have already been written. So, we’ll bracket that, and look at the articles in question instead.
The first thing I need to point out is that the actual people who might be identified with “postliberalism” are a very diverse lot who tend to agree that the older reifications “right” and “left” are aspects of a time past and the conditions that gave rise to them (a rather Marxian idea, actually). When both McManus and Chappel refer to right and left in their descriptions of postliberalism, we’re faced with a situation explicated by Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue, wherein the absence of common philosophical ground leads to interminable disagreements based on incommensurable premises.
In McManus’s article, his (I would say anachronistic) attachment to the terminology of right and left — which are presented as if they need no further explanation — also tend to a kind of “no true Scotsman” fallacy. He warns “why leftist Christians should be wary of the temptations [postliberalism] poses.” In Chappel’s piece, the polarity is expressed as “progressive versus reactionary,” assigning postliberals to the latter in his defense of the former. Both are forms of question-begging which assumes that these categories are unquestionable baselines.
Again, a MacIntyrean fracture, because one common-ground, so to speak, between the homeless right and the homeless left among those drawn to the shop-shingle of postliberalism is a deep suspicion of the myth of progress (and I mean myth in the Ellulian sense, as cultural — and even sub-cultural — pre-conceptual points of reference, not as a synonym for intentional fabrications). Absent the acceptance of progress as a thing, the right-left/progress-reaction polarity is untenable.
Chappel’s polemic stands up Adrian Vermeule as postliberalism’s representative — who he reduces to a “Catholic integralist,” an outlook which he also simplifies and mischaracterizes. This is entirely disingenuous, and more so because Chappel then says,
Since I do not take this combative approach to intellectual inquiry, I will begin by presenting Vermuele’s argument in the most generous and charitable terms that I can. This is not an unwelcome challenge, because for all of his faults Vermeule is a captivating writer, and a penetrating intellect. And he begins, too, in the right place. He is fully aware that we live on an unequal and rapidly warming planet, and that the aimless and immoral political order that got us here is not going to get us out. (Chappel)
And admirable approach, I would say an almost postliberal approach, given that what I’ve seen — and will cover below — is that one of the main principles of those who are attracted to this current is the commitment to talking together without declaring war over disagreements.
The problem here is that this generosity of spirit follows upon naming only the reduced-Vermeule, so this generosity is only extended to the straw man. The article is not aimed at a critique of Vermeule, though that is its main substance, but at a casting the dark shadow of pre-denunciation on postliberalism itself. The article’s title is “Inside the Postliberal Mind,” not “Inside the mind of Adrian Vermeule.” The. Postliberal. Mind. (Like into the haunted dungeon) [He may not have chosen the title, I admit. As a writer, I have struggled against the editorial tendency to favor clickbait. The content, however, shows that Chappel is still writing in bad faith.]
Every link provided on postliberalism is representative of Chappel’s narrow representation, which means to me either Chappel didn’t do his homework or he’s engaged in pure polemicism. The one exception is a throwaway line buried in the body, “Postliberals, though, are critical of exactly [Vermeule’s] model.”
Well . . . it’s not THE postliberal mind, is it?
In the same paragraph, however, he reverts, concluding with a rather presumptuous slippery-slope fallacy: “[Vermeule’s] goal in writing books like this, then, is not to persuade hostile readers, but to provide ammunition for his allies. This kind of drum-beating might seem quaint and irrelevant, a sort of cosplay for Twitter radicals. It always does, until the shooting starts.”
He then launches into a review of “constitutional originalism” as a legal theory, wherein he says that Vermeule himself engages in straw-mannery with regard to “progressives,” saying that “Vermeule argues that progressives are consumed to distraction by issues of gender identity and opposition to religion.” That may be true; I‘m uninitiated in Vermeule’s opus. But I’m also aware that these two criticisms of an element of “progressivism,” such as it is nowadays, actually describes something real, which I’ll address further on.
This is crucial to his argument because he wants to present himself and his tradition as the only one capable of using state power to solve social issues in a genuinely moral way. A reasonable scholar might, to understand contemporary progressives, pick up a copy of The Nation or Jacobin; maybe she would go to a DSA meeting, or talk to some progressives in her acquaintance. (Chappel)
I’ve done all three, and this is precisely while I feel homeless on the left. These are all representative of precisely the Promethean “progressive” left that I enthusiastically abandoned.
I can think of no venue that would be more unwelcoming to most of the working class people I know than the DSA meetings I attended. As soon as I walked in the room, they issued a name tag and instructed me to write my first name and my preferred pronoun. Ninety-five percent of the actual working class people I have known would have turned on their heels and marched out right there (as I nearly did), recognizing this as elite in-crowding of the most toxic sort.
As to the named publications, they are part of what Anthony Galluzzo calls the “Jetson left,” still enamored of techno-machinic society and fantasizing about socialist Walmarts and wind-powered, fully automated, work-free utopias and such. In other words, progressive . . . as in, still clinging to the shattered idol of Progress. And here we again have the “no true Scotsman” lurking in the shadow of “what progressives ought to do” and the question-begging of unexamined “progressive” premises.
Perhaps the most successful coup accomplished by the postliberals has been to claim that moniker as their own: “If you do not like liberalism,” that name promises, “then join us, for we will emerge in its wake.” Postliberalism has a frisson to it, doubtless appealing to the many leftist Christians who are sick unto death of the modern world and its many horrors. (Chappel)
There it is! We’ve accomplished a coup! We are dangerous! Listening to postliberals is a slippery slope into a hellish future. He never cites the quote, because he made it up then misrepresented his own parody as that of postliberals. (That’s not to say modernity has no horrors. Mass extinction, no-return climate disaster, a nuclear-armed world, the destruction of subsistence . . . these all strike me as irreversibly horrible.)
I’m no stranger this no-holds-barred form of fallacious argument used as a battering ram— all things being permissible when confronting an “enemy” — which I encountered on the left for decades, especially among disappointed and bitter old Trotskyists whose dreams remained unfulfilled, even as they remain convinced that everyone who disagreed was an intellectual inferior worthy only of disdain. It’s an intellectual version of toxic machismo. I did it myself when I was still caught up in this deeply defensive form of attack-discourse.
What I’ve found most refreshing among so-called postliberals, formerly right and left, is their abandonment of this malignant trope wherein disagreements are tantamount to war. I would hope that both writers reviewed here — as Christians, if not as “leftists” — would take that into account; and I invite them to do so. I’ve no aversion, as a Christian, to sharp disagreements or blunt language (I’ll use some here), but I do have an issue with bad faith misrepresentations of those with whom one disagrees. Oh, and I’ve been guilty of it . . . a lot, when I was part of what I’ll call the Hegelian left. (No one can tell you more about drunks than a former drunk. Guilty of that, too.)
If an encounter with Vermeule is at all useful, it is because it helps us to clarify the nature of the task ahead of us. It might feel fashionable and fun to style ourselves as postliberal provocateurs, able to see through the vanities of the modern age and recover the solid ground of tradition. But as I hope I’ve shown, what postliberals are doing in fact is replacing one set of modern vanities with their own, in an endless game of smoke and mirrors that neither recognizes, nor does anything for, the people in this world who are genuinely suffering. (Chappel)
One oversimplified version of one instantiation stands in for the whole. Bad faith. Provocateurs!?
Now to Dr. McManus, whose article is far more interesting and subtle for still being a straw man argument, if for no other reason than it at least restricts itself to Catholics. It’s not clear to me whether McManus himself is a Catholic, but a quick review of his opus shows an ongoing defense of liberalism. He is also a writer for Jacobin, which is essentially a progressive (Promethean) liberal publication (calling itself “democratic socialist”). I believe these are sincere people; but I also believe, about which I’ve written a good deal, that they’re wrong . . . and increasingly self-marginalizing.
McManus takes aim at Catholic postliberalism. This at least has the virtue of a lesser universal claim than Chappel’s, if he hadn’t immediately conflated postliberalism with “conservatism.” I’m not at all sure there is as much cohesion between “Catholic conservatives” as this suggests (and he admits as much in passing at one point).
McManus begins with the slippery slope fallacy in his title, The Perils of Catholic Postliberalism. Once again, postliberalism is dangerous. He also begins with a presumably shared assumption of what it means to be a “right-wing” Catholic, since he doesn’t define what that is. He merely names those to whom he assumes it applies. This, of course, sets up a covertly ad hominem criticism of the simplified examples of what “right-wing Catholics” believe. His examples are not only remarkably different in outlook, but not even contemporaries: Joseph de Maistre (1753–1821), Pope Pious X (1835–1914), and Pope John Paul II (1920–2005). Once he’s set up guilt-by-association with the term “right-wing,” with all its late modern associations with everything from Tucker Carlson to Marie Le Pen to the cosplaying gun-nuts of the Michigan Militia, he slides in what he thinks makes them “right-wing,” a term that is by the second paragraph meaningless — their criticisms of various aspects of modernity. Postliberals become, thereby, guilty by association based on criticism of or opposition to the major aspects of modernity. Marx himself would have had a chuckle at these comparisons, given that these people all emerged in decidedly different material and world-political circumstances.
McManus’s only real objection to postliberals — who he portrays as a dangerous force who might somehow impose a right-wing vision on society — is that they are opposed to the baseline philosophical and political assumptions of modernity. By that criterion, I myself — in spite of my long association with “the left” and my openly eco-socialist views — am a right-winger. It’s quite true that most of these oppositions are to the philosophical and political underpinnings of the modern/capitalist epoch, which is, broadly speaking, liberalism.
McManus even suggests at one point that liberalism and capitalism are not conjoined siblings — apparently a recurring theme in his writing — but history says otherwise. (Might I suggest The Unintended Reformation, by Brad Gregory . . . who McManus would probably brand a postliberal.)
McManus tries early on to separate socio-political postliberalism from theological postliberalism, but this is disingenuous. Despite McManus’s attempt to separate them, political postliberalism is very much like theological postliberalism and linked to it in actual persons. I myself have been very much formed as a Christian by postliberal theologians, and this was my gateway into the more general postliberal conversation.
Most postliberals are also very skeptical of or outright antagonistic to capitalism, as he grudgingly acknowledges. He cherry-picks his representatives to support his overall thesis, as the links below will demonstrate, and serially simplifies and misrepresents them. There is no mention of Ivan Illich and his philosophical interventions (who shows liberalism to be Christendom’s direct descendant), nor is there any mention of Mary Harrington, John Millbank, Paul Kingsnorth, Walter Strickland, Louise Perry, Nina Power, Rhyd Wildermuth, Kathleen Stock, Stanley Hauerwas, L. M. Sacassas, Catherine Pickstock, Justin Smith, J. Deotis Roberts, William Cavanaugh, Nimco Ali, etc. etc. etc., or of some of the key thinkers to whom they make reference: Jacques Ellul, Paul Virilio, Alasdair MacIntyre, Simone Weil, Ivan Illich, Christopher Lasch, Wendell Berry, etc.
None of them claim “that modern science owes an unpayable debt to Christian thought while denying the positive patrimony of liberalism and liberal rationalism, as though it was some unwanted bastard child,” as McManus says. He’s putting words into the straw man’s mouth to steer readers away from the far more complex and nuanced thought of those he claims to interpret.
I’m not sure why he tried to separate theological postliberalism from socio-political postliberalism —perhaps to avoid alienating postliberal theolgians— but he cites Alasdair MacIntyre more than once (a former Marxist, by the way, who still makes reference to Marx’s sociological insights), and who is closely associated with numerous postliberal theologians as a virtue ethicist. He suggests by an association in every mention of MacIntyre with “conservatives” that MacIntyre himself is a “conservative,” which is blatantly false. MacIntyre, like many of those mentioned, and like the Catholic philosopher Ivan Illich (who is frequently cited by postliberals), does not fall neatly into either popular category of philosophical liberalism— liberal-liberal or conservative-liberal. This, again, is what postliberalism, such as it is, is really about — a discussion among several refugees from these archaic categories.
Despite the catchy neologism [postliberal], as with many critical movements, it is not readily apparent what exactly this kind of postliberalism is intended to stand for. However, they are crystal clear about what they stand against: liberal and progressive modernity, in all its Luciferian glory. (McManus)
See, that bit was below the belt, grotesquely so. Also untrue for the vast majority of self-described postliberals, but the legs of straw are assembled by the second paragraph.
None of those associated with this tendency denies that modernity is an established and inescapable fact, or that some good things have developed within the modern epoch, or even suggests that we can escape from it by fiat. Not one. And his claim that postliberals have few critiques of capitalism is spectacularly untrue, and he knows it.
[P]ostliberals rarely direct their attention to these issues, instead focusing on the old cherries of political correctness, the policing of speech by social justice activists and “Big Tech,” and the fact that John Finnis can’t compare the gay lifestyle to bestiality anymore without facing a backlash.
This is blatant straw-manning, especially shoehorning every postliberal into John Finnis’s minority positions on sexuality. In fact, the business of “political correctness” and speech-policing tend to center around their critique of capitalist modernity and an inquisitional and censorious online subculture that’s risen around gender ideology (more on that below), which has accused lifelong leftists like Harrington, Kingsnorth, Stock, and Power of being “fascists.” (I myself have been accused of “cryptofascism” and “terfism” for suggesting that it’s a bad idea to give confused eleven-year-olds puberty blockers or that prostitution is not just any other job.)
Postliberalism, for the record (and we’ll go more deeply into this further along) is a conversation. It’s not “designed,” and so it it is not designed for, establishing positions like so many propositions to which someone somewhere has to assent. I contend it’s a conversation that some, like Dr. McManus — who claims his Hegelianism in the article — want to quash using misrepresentation and scare tactics.
Most “conservative” postliberals with whom I’m familiar, Catholic — like me, though I’m by no means “conservative” — or otherwise, identify neither as conservative nor liberal in the popular sense, and most of us are well aware that philosophical liberalism — as it applies to postliberalism — is the container for the popular definitions of both conservative and liberal.
In conversations I’ve observed (links below), I’ve seen one “postliberal” say to others who claim a form of conservatism that she’s not “conservative” because “there’s nothing left to conserve” — which the “conservatives,” with perhaps a whiff of regret, acknowledged. That’s what happens in civil conversations conducted in good faith — people are open to being convinced they might be wrong. Online culture has only exacerbated the worst polemical tendencies of the left, and that is one thing that the postliberal conversation has been established to confront head-on by modeling how to talk with one another.
The main thing that unites these various refugees from “right” and “left” — which they generally agree are increasingly useless terms — is their shared belief that liberal individualism and its commitment to an impossible definition of “freedom” (from all limits, including natural ones) is a bankrupt ideology. This is precisely what McManus objects to, even though this same critique has often been leveled by socialists — which he acknowledges at one point.
This is not to say that they refuse to recognize liberalism’s virtues, as traditionalists might. What is distinctive about the new Catholic postliberals is their conviction that liberalism is collapsing under the weight of its own accumulated victories — that it has been too successful in its project of emancipation, autonomy, and individualism.
His whole purpose in the article is alert others as to “why leftist Christians should be wary of the temptations [postliberalism] poses.” And yes, many of us do question what is meant in today’s context by autonomy (humans are not autonomous and never have been) and individualism (the liberal “individual” is a political fiction and this can be easily demonstrated) and the generality of emancipation has been deployed in the most excessive of liberal notions, like transhumanism. Nonetheless, he quite explicitly calls postliberalism a slippery-slope to “theocracy” in his conclusion.
[I]t’s hard to shake the feeling that if postliberals had their way, we’d see a swift retreat toward a less free society in the name of . . . the “Highest Good,” with socially conservative measures gleefully imposed and enforced by a theopolitical state.
This is no argument, it’s innuendo. McManus is more subtle than Chappel, but he’s still publishing a hit piece aimed at anathematizing anyone calling themselves postliberal (theologians tactically excepted).
Included among postliberals are divergent ideas and opinions about various issues. Some have summed it up as economically left and culturally right, which is simultaneously kind of true and highly deceptive. My biggest issue with Chappel and McManus is not that some postliberals have questionable ideas or even questionable politics. From my perspective, some do; but the starting point for postliberalism is not teleological, it’s reflective. That is, the general point of agreement is that liberalism is falling apart as a socio-political order, so let’s talk about it. Civilly, in good faith.
My own greatest criticism of many postliberals is the delusion they share with liberals, that societies can be constructed according to plans, or that they should be. I would separate the discussion of what’s happening to the liberal order and why from “how can we fix it?”, because as a kind of postliberal communitarian I am keenly aware of the impossibility (and undesirability) of planning and constructing generalized “futures.” I’m with Illich, who said, “To hell with the future, it’s a man-eating idol.” Doesn’t mean I refuse to talk with people who cling to the notion. I think that postliberal awareness naturally trends toward localism, not as a utoptian vision, but as a purely practical matter. My objection to the hit pieces by Chappel and McManus are that they are trying to close the door on the conversation.
This is a contagion-narrative form of politics, wherein anyone who disagrees or holds a forbidden thought has to be anathematized and quarantined. I saw it recently when PMC “leftists” criticized Chris Smalls, the young African American union organizer who recently delivered a stunning defeat to Amazon, for appearing on Tucker Carlson’s program (where he, by the way, flipped Carlson’s bullshit quite successfully and reached a whole-nuther audience with a clear union message). The “leftists” who had the temerity to attack this brilliant young organizer were telling us that Smalls risked catching and passing the Carlson virus. Purity code politics.
Contagion-narrative politics is not only counter-productive, but deeply un-Christian. Will post-leftists like myself interact with Orban-affinés or Trump-voters. Well, yes, and, by God, we should. And we don’t have to begin in the pugilistic Trotskyist tradition of identifying differences over which to draw the battle lines; we might begin by finding common points of agreement, at least in what we observe.
Present-day, crisis-and-internet fueled, socio-political tribalism is altogether a Bad Thing. Postliberals are talking, not taking over the damn government. These are children of God no less than any of us, and they are not some clear and present danger. They may even (whispers) be right sometimes when we are wrong. I know I’ve changed my mind more than once . . . even in the last few months!
I also have disagreements with some postliberals about nationalism. When the right-refugees among postliberals advocate for nationalism, as one example — and I have a deep antipathy to imperial patriotism — it’s in opposition to globalism, part of an urge to re-localize, which I share, albeit with a different idea of how to get there (if we even can). I’m familiar enough with American Black nationalism (and influenced enough by it, and the twentieth century nationalisms that stood against imperialism, from Cuba to Guinea-Bissau to Vietnam) to understand why I shouldn’t reify the term. And I’m quite clear that the United States is geographically and culturally too diverse for nationalism to have the same restrictive meaning it would in, say, Scotland or Namibia.
Disagreement should not foreclose discussion!
As to Trump-voters or in the UK, Johnson-voters, rather than dismiss them en masse as a pack of mindless bigots (I have met Trump voters who are definitely not!), we might set aside the urge to cast them into the outer darkness and try to understand the various motives that led them to this action.
As Nina Power says, “We will never understand anyone else unless we listen to their complaint and work out why they are suffering, and understand who they blame, and why.” This requires going beyond self-righteous mass denunciation and its inhering contagion-narrative.
Again, postliberalism is neither as a movement nor an ideology, but a conversation, to which I’d invite anyone.
With her permission,I’ll tell a story about Nina Power — who was, like several other leftist feminists, expelled from the in-crowd’s circle of trust for suggesting that men and women are different (or that biological gender exists at all!), and for (gasp!) talking to cancelled people. Nina says repeatedly that no one will be harmed, and many might prosper, by talking to and listening to people with whom we disagree.
Her case is emblematic and it partly involves the gender ideology mentioned above, which I contend is not merely the fusty preoccupation of conservative prudes, but an instance of hegemonic bourgeois ideology that corresponds to the increasingly obvious collapse of the liberal project. It’s also a poison that’s killed any chance of the ostensible left ever again being a representative of the working class, and which has helped fuel the working class retreat from the left into the arms of demagogues.
Nina was “cancelled” in 2019, when she was lecturing in Philosophy at Roehampton University, by a frankly psychotic anonymous letter which was circulated online, in reaction to her understanding of gender and her appearance on a podcast with David (DC) Miller and Justin Murphy, both of whom were characterized falsely in the letter as “fascists.” (Both have articulated positions at times I’ve found questionable, so what? Neither is even remotely a fascist, and they’ve both also written and said some very insightful stuff.) Of course, by the end of this monstrous letter, Power herself was labeled a fascist, alongside the bizarre claim that she’d given some obscure Turkish fascist hand signal on air. (She’d never heard of this signal or the Turkish cult it applied to, and had in fact done a rock-n-roll “horn” gesture in passing during the discussion.)
Her real sin, I suspect, was one of which I‘m also “guilty,” and that’s questioning a now hegemonic (and profoundly incoherent) understanding of gender, at least among urban liberals, academics, and liberal media. It’s certainly not hegemonic among the general population, which is why the right has been able to get such demagogic mileage from it politically. The overwhelming majority of working class people, if you tell them that their sex is an arbitrary assignment and not a demonstrable biological fact, will sensibly tell you you’re are full of shit.
This has become a kind of electrocution fence around the “progressive” left. Deviate from the new orthodoxy and die (or be cancelled, a kind of social death).
I wrote at some length about it here. I’ll call it declarative gender, which is the idea that (1) human beings are not sexually dimorphic mammals, and (2) that our “gender” (redefined as how we feel) is whatever we claim it is. In most cases, this is a harmless response to the distress associated with gender dysphoria (which is real,though contextual), but as a doctrine it has led to lunacies like sexual reassignment surgery for kids, letting biological men compete in women’s sports, and putting men who claim to be women in prison with women. Saying this gets you labeled a TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist) — a demonized group, though neither Nina Power nor I are radical feminists (we both have friends, however, who are and we have been influenced by them), nor have we “excluded” anyone. We share some views with RadFems, though, so we’re contaminated. Nina was cancelled, with real material repercussions. My age and retired-status gave me a bit more inoculation against the knock-on effects.
Unfortunately, this gnostic nonsense has become hegemonic on the left, and led directly to my disaffiliation with the last group to which I’d belonged when I was still a communist. The political left, strapped to this idea of gender like a bomb, is now a political dead letter among the working class that it so arrogantly claims to represent.
My own socio-political outlook is powerfully influenced by feminism, which to my understanding means the examination of the world and its issues from the standpoint of women (not just bourgeois women!). This, of course, presupposes that there is such a thing as a sexually-embodied natal woman (and that they comprise a slight majority of humanity and overwhelmingly recognize themselves as (unmodified) women, as do the overwhelming majority of men. This is not the exclusive position of the radical feminist tendency within feminism. In fact, the cancellation of many feminists (some named above) for retaining this now-excluded point of view, with its correlative concerns about prostitution and pornography, has led them to postliberalism, because at least the postliberals allow them to speak.
On that note, tell most working class people that prostitution is just another job, for example, and see what happens. Again, they’ll tell you, and rightly so, that you are as full of shit as a pre-Christmas turkey.
These are elite and technocratic perspectives.
Liberalism is the political expression of capitalist modernity, characterized by the desire to be liberated from (conquered) nature (which is why I say that most “postmodernism” is still modernism), including our own bodies. Restraint, in liberal thought, is anathema. This applies equally to restraint in the “conquest of nature” by rentiers and industry, which is dissolving biomes, and the idea that one’s gender is a disembodied personal choice, and the idea that sex is merely a transactional relation (purportedly a “feminist” idea, which has had horrendous consequences for women). It’s a denial of relationality and a reaffirmation of the person as deracinated individual as well as the dissolution of nature into discrete “resources.” It’s Bacon’s “conquest of nature,” liberal all the way down.
A likely response to my remarks here is also exemplary of the inquisitional character of the noisy and powerful subculture that has made this point of view hegemonic among the professional, managerial, and technocratic strata. That likely response relates to harm, that is, there will be a claim that merely having these beliefs or expressing them is tantamount to harming others, which is equivalent to “oppressing” them.
If I say that prostitution is not just another job, or that letting “transitioned” natal men compete as boxers against natal women is a bad idea, then automatically I am also saying that people should beat up trans persons. This is the transformation of the harm principle (if I call you an asshole, it’s regrettable behavior, but I haven’t really harmed you in the sense of assaulting you) from a definable and circumscribed term into one with an infinity of ramifications. I may not have harmed trans people (I’ve never so much as said a cross word to anyone identifying as trans, and have shared friendly conversations as well as political projects with quite a few); but according to the new, improved harm principle, (a) I have excluded trans people by merely saying natal men shouldn’t be in prison with natal women, which (b) presumably ramifies into me hating trans people (I don’t), which (c) ramifies into me supporting the hatred others feel about trans people, which (d) is tacit support of trans-haters beating up trans people. It’s the metastasis of the slippery slope fallacy, enforced by a new purity-and-pollution code (and a contagion narrative).
The same dynamic apples to Trump-voters, who are “all white supremacists” (including presumably the Black, Asian, Native, and Latino people who voted for Trump). The point of all this fallacious discourse is not to illuminate or delve more deeply into the issues. The point is twofold: first, it’s to signal one’s continued membership in the in-group; and second, to foreclose anyone listening in good faith to those who have been excluded from this mostly urban, mostly technocratic, mostly degreed minority’s circle of trust. Liberals like to knock down boundaries, except for the boundaries they themselves erect.
When Nina Power was exiled, she wrote a long response, which she subsequently pulled offline because parts about her struggle with addiction distressed her mother. Again, I have her permission to quote.
What you really just want to say is — you cannot be friends with this person.
Why can you not be friends with this person?
Because ‘we’ have cancelled them already — didn’t you get the memo! — because we — this fragile cobweb called something like ‘the left’ or ‘the artworld’ or ‘antifa’ or just ‘people we know and like… and not these other people we either don’t know and don’t like, or do know and don’t like, or once knew and liked and now don’t like’. The ‘we’ that has decided in favour of rumours and anonymous accusations and allegations, that has decided a lie is easier to believe than than truth, which is always more complicated.
A ‘we’ that has decided a loose grip on reality is a small price to pay for group belonging. I don’t think, in the end, though, that this is a small price to pay. I think actually it is an extremely high price to pay. It is to sell one’s soul (or mind or heart, or whatever word you prefer) to someone or something you cannot trust. It is to do this out of fear — fear of having to imagine that the world is more complicated than you think, that people are more complicated, that we might disagree on some things and agree on others, that we might change our mind. The easiest way to do this is to claim that ‘the other’ is filled with hatred, that they are possessed of bad thoughts and feelings, and that you, or you and your little group, are the best people to interpret and understand these bad feelings, and to punish those you have decided possess them. But we are really not so different, you and I, and this sameness, and this ‘hatred’ and these bad feelings…we all are capable of having them, even or especially the ones who desperately seek to be ‘good’. (Power)
In this painfully vulnerable and personal account, she also said:
[I]t undoubtedly makes us feel better to pretend that people who have done or said something we don’t like just can be ‘cancelled’ and should lose income and recognition as punishment for their sins or transgressions. I am personally opposed to tactics that involve people losing money and jobs, and I find this a strange mode of operation from the left, because impoverishing people is generally what the left is against. Of course, the moment you decide that someone is no longer ‘of the left’ and is actually a ‘TERF’ or a ‘Nazi’, then of course you will see them as fair game for violence and economic punishment — they are no longer your friend or ally but your enemy, and you worry and imagine that they will say things to others that you cannot bear to hear and do not agree with. On the TERF thing, while we are there, you’ll notice that no one is linking to anything that ‘proves’ that I hate trans people. There isn’t anything there, because I don’t hate trans people at all, and I’ve never written anything as far as I am aware that expresses hateful views. I don’t, in fact, hate any group of people. In so far as it is possible, I don’t even hate any individuals, even the people who hate me! This will sound naïve and totally unlikely, but I am so grateful for being alive and sober that I don’t want to waste any of my time hating anybody, myself or anyone else.
I’m actually humbled a bit by her unfeigned generosity of spirit. My first reaction (there’s still a mean little soldier living inside me) would be, “Go fuck yourself!” It’s only Christ that lays a hand on my shoulder and inhibits this reply.
Just as this kind of online policing — which can have powerful political effects (the semiotic and the material penetrate one another) — has torn apart “the left,” just as the liberal economic hegemony of the right has driven out many “cultural conservatives.” Many “conservatives” were expelled because they think that boundaries are not only necessary in the cultural realm, but that societies based on unchecked desire and unchecked growth, that is, capitalism, cannot and will not trend toward the common good.
One reason both groups are having conversations with one another, again, is that they share this experience of being socio-politically homeless. They’ve made a pact to do something extraordinary in these times: to listen to one another.
Postliberalism is not a conversation that was provoked by some worked out political program. It began with the acknowledgement from several socio-political corners — and especially, but not exclusively, from faith communities — that the liberal order and the liberal era is collapsing because the outworking of liberalism in politics, culture, religion, and law has not led us toward the utopian telos proclaimed in the myth of progress, but into an irresponsible, nuclear-armed, poisoned and ravaged, insecure, violent, lonely, and alienated world.
That’s the state of the conversation right now. Here it is, what do I see, what do you see . . . where do we go from here? Can we at least stop co-signing the liberal/progressive fiction, right or left?
One of the unitive tenets of the postliberal trend is the rejection of individualism, that is, the liberal (and liberal legal) understanding of persons as independent of others except in a transactional, contractual sense. Postliberals from left and right agree that persons are irrevocably relational, and that the characters of these relations are embedded variously in practices, which are themselves embedded in traditions.
One aspect of this relationality is that we cannot in good faith pretend that a person “belongs” exclusively to him- or her-self. We all know this from experience, from the fact that we maintain non-contractual relations with loved ones, for example, and that this implies expectations, duties, and obligations that unequivocally transcend self-interest. One reason postliberals want to shore up families is that family is the “little communism” where relations are non-contractual and covenental, a last refuge in an ever more enclosed and commodified world (dominated by the Market).
Liberalism, as a philosophy and a political practice which has progressively tried to break with traditions — treating them like unwanted relics — becomes incoherent without the fiction of the purely transactional person — a person viewed in philosophy and law as having no characteristics beyond the transactional individual: no history, no context, no web of interpersonal relations. McManus was correct in saying that postliberals reject individualism, in this sense. We reject it because it’s a lie.
He’s also right that postliberals generally reject “freedom,” but not the wholesale reification that gets thrown around in everyday speech. We reject the idea that freedom of the liberal individual to do whatever he or she desires can be the primary metric of any society which wants to flourish. It’s remarkable that any socialist would defend this metric, and doubly remarkable that any Christian would, given that the Incarnation as narrated in the Gospels and Epistles aims at another form of freedom altogether — freedom from the tyranny of unbridled and self-interested desire. We are called to die to self — even to love enemies.
Simone Weil — who worked as a farm hand during the war for a virulent anti-Semite who knew she was an ethnic Jew — was very impatient with the philosophical dictum to “know thyself”; her Christian conviction was to know the other. That’s what listening is. She ended up befriending the farmer, by the way, and teaching him Greek.
Postliberals are not calling, in our critique of “freedom to choose,” for arbitrary despotism, but for a re-acknowledgment that boundaries and hierarchies not only exist, but are necessary for communities to flourish, and that no one belongs exclusively to self. That doesn’t mean reversion to or the embrace of self-serving, corrupt, or violent boundaries and hierarchies.
No honest parent would claim that children, for example can survive without boundaries or hierarchies; no honest practitioner of a craft would deny it; no honest student would deny the need to submit to the tutelage of a professor, and so on.
With this admittedly truncated overview of the postliberal conversation, let me begin to close out.
Bias Magazine represents one version of something they call Christian socialism. I feel I have some standing to write this critique, because I am — reversing this now — a socialist Christian, so at least I’m a cousin.
My “socialism” is contingent, that is, not attached to some utopian teleology, but a tactical stance in relation to “the common good”; and it is a “subsistence socialism,” that is, aimed at dramatically reducing dependence on centralized and environmentally catastrophic technological grids. In this, I agree with the distributists on the principle of subsidiarity. My “socialism” is socialism only inasmuch as (a) it is anti-capitalist, and (b) I cannot realistically get around the reality of the state. My own development as a socialist began with communists, anti-capitalist feminists (and later ecofeminists), and close relations with Black nationalists; and though I moved on in some respects, the insights I gained along those paths are still with me. In this totality, I am not in line, except on contingently tactical matters like elections, with the thinking of the Institute for Christian Socialism, Jacobin, or DSA. By the same token, I may have some intellectual disagreements with a lot of postliberals. So it goes.
As to my faith, my Christianity takes precedence in all things, and it is not the modifier for socialism, quite the contrary. My Christian perspective is very much influenced by postliberals — like Stanley Hauerwas, Amy Laura Hall, and Kara Slade. The latter two also taught me enough Kierkegaard to reject Hegelianism. My Christian attitude to institutionalization was shaped by Ivan Illich, and my attitude to “technology” by Jacques Ellul and Paul Virilio. In these things, my thinking (which is changing rapidly in recent months as I’ve undergone a kind of intellectual molting) is not in line with Chappel or McManus. Nonetheless, I linked their articles first, and I’d ask readers to read them and not be content with reading my hot take and leaving it at that. They are invited into this conversation, too.
With regard to postliberalism itself, here is a link to a postliberal conversation, for those who are interested, in which both Deneen and Vermeule participate, moderated by a left-feminist and postliberal, Mary Harrington. Watch it, and you’ll not be confronted by demons, but a group of people having a very reasonable and highly nuanced conversation. There are certainly things said by all the panelists that will raise eyebrows (and which raised mine), and raise the hackles of those of us still in the thrall of political tribes (a phenomenon that has exploded with social media); but observe how these people behave with one another.
I’ve never made a fetish of civility, and in fact can be quite uncivil in exigent circumstances, but nothing new to meet a newly emergent set of circumstances is going to be cultivated in an atmosphere of relentless conflict and demonization. As Nina Power said, “We have to learn to talk with each other.” Socio-political and philosophical conversations — which is what I contend postliberalism is — should not be carried out like wars.
Instead of some sweeping conclusion, let me invite you into the conversation with a few more links.
Reactionary Feminist (It’s meant ironically)