The Western system – liberal, democratic, capitalist – has been essentially unchallenged from the inside for decades, its ideological rivals discredited or tamed. Marxists retreated to academic fastnesses, fascists to online message boards, and Western Christianity accepted pluralism and abandoned throne-and-altar dreams.
The liberal system’s weak spots did not go away. It delivered peace and order and prosperity, but it attenuated preliberal forces – tribal, familial, religious – that speak more deeply than consumer capitalism to basic human needs: the craving for honor, the yearning for community, the desire for metaphysical hope.
Those needs endured, muted but not eliminated by greater social equality and rising GDP. Nonetheless the liberal consensus seemed impressively resilient, even in the midst of elite misgovernment. 9/11 did not shake it meaningfully, nor did the Iraq War, and it seemed at first to weather the financial crisis as well.
Now, though, there is suddenly resistance. Its political form is an angry nationalism, a revolt of the masses in both the United States and Europe. But the more important development may be happening in intellectual circles, where many younger writers regard the liberal consensus as something to be transcended or rejected, rather than reformed or redeemed.
I’ve written about some of these ideas before, but a taxonomy seems useful. The first post-liberal school might be called the new radicals, a constellation of left-wing writers for whom the Marxist dream lives anew. In journals-of-ideas like Jacobin and n+1 and in the crucible of protest politics, they have tried to forge a unified critique of the liberal-capitalist order out of a diversity of issues: structural racism and sexism, climate change, economic inequality and more.
No full-spectrum agenda uniting Thomas Piketty and Naomi Klein and Ta-Nehisi Coates has yet emerged. But the left’s fractiousness, its complicated race-sexuality-class feuds, have an energy that’s conspicuously absent closer to the neoliberal center. And they are infused with an exasperation with procedural liberalism, an eagerness to purge and police and shame our way toward a more perfect justice than the post-Cold War order has produced.
The illiberalism of these new radicals is mirrored among the new reactionaries, a group defined by skepticism of democracy and egalitarianism, admiration for more hierarchical orders, and a willingness to overthrow the Western status quo.
As on the left, there is not yet a defining reactionary agenda, and neoreaction looks different depending on whether you associate it with the white nationalism of the “alt-right,” the mordant European pessimism of Michel Houellebecq, or the techno-utopian impulses of Silicon Valley figures like Peter Thiel.
But that very diversity means that the new reaction has appeal beyond anti-PC tweeters and Trumpist message boards. Reactionary ideas have made modest inroads in the mainstream right: The intellectuals’ case for Trump that I wrote about last week includes a thin but striking “regime change at home” thread. And they have appeal in areas like the tech industry where mainstream conservatism presently has little influence because (like fascism in its heyday) the new reaction blends nostalgia with a hyper-modernism – monarchy in the service of transhumanism, doubts about human equality alongside dreams of space travel or AI.
Then finally there is a third group of post-liberals, less prominent but still culturally significant: religious dissenters. These are Western Christians, especially, who regard both liberal and neoconservative styles of Christian politics as failed experiments, doomed because they sought reconciliation with a liberal project whose professed tolerance stacks the deck in favor of materialism and unbelief. Some of these religious dissenters are seeking a tactical retreat from liberal modernity, a subcultural resilience in the style of Orthodox Jews or Mennonites or Mormons. But others are interested in going on offense. In my own church, part of the younger generation seems disillusioned with post-Vatican II Catholic politics and is drawn instead either to a revived Catholic integralism or a “tradinista” Catholic socialism – both of which affirm the “social kingship” of Jesus Christ, a phrase that attacks the modern liberal order at the root.
Let me stress that these are very marginal groups. But like the radicals and neoreactionaries, they have an energy absent from the ideological mainstream. And all three post-liberal tendencies are in sync with aspects of the populisms roiling the West’s politics: the radicals with Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn and Podemos and Syriza, the neoreactionaries with Trump and Brexit and Le Pen, the Catholic integralists with Eastern Europe’s rightward turn.
So their ideas are, perhaps, genuinely dangerous to the order we take for granted in the West. Or – it all depends – they might be beneficial because liberal civilization’s flourishing has often depended on forces that a merely procedural order can’t generate, on radical and religious correctives to a flattened view of human life.
When those correctives are in short supply, the entire system becomes decadent. When they re-emerge, it’s best to learn from them – or else the next correction will be worse.