Skip to content

Negative Piety

Note: adapted from a lecture delivered by the author in Poland in May 2017.


These are disorienting times. It is enough to say the name “Donald Trump.” Viewed historically, his ascendancy is a sign that the postwar era is ending in the West. It is perhaps cruel that I should bring this news to Poland, since your country came late to the party. Announcing the last call for drinks would seem more than a little ungenerous. But I think you already know. Having spent so many decades in the deep freeze of Soviet domination, you are perhaps better able than most to recognize the decadence and superannuation of the world you entered after 1989.

The motif of the postwar era is found in the name itself—post. The 1950s sought to be post-ideological. The 1960s launched post-bourgeois culture, one that sets aside nettlesome constraints. Intellectuals throughout the West adopted postmodernism, an outlook that eases the demands of truth. Before 1989, progressives in the West were already post-Marxist. That meant shifting away from Marx’s rigorous dialectics toward open-ended campaigns for “liberation” that pose no threats to capitalism. In the United States, our distinctive form of conservatism became increasingly focused on promoting the global commercial empire that transcends nations and cultures. By this way of thinking, the benevolent ministrations of the Invisible Hand, NGOs, and human rights lawyers can be trusted to guide us toward prosperity and peace in a post-national, post-cultural future.

In each instance, “post” indicates the desire to shed and unburden, to leave behind what has become heavy and tiresome. But I do not wish to itemize our present distempers. Ryszard Legutko does so with insight and panache in his recent book, The Demon in Democracy. Instead, I will venture a formulation: We are reaching various dead-ends because our present regime has no place for the sacred in public life. By “regime” I do not mean a particular ruling party or system of government. Instead, “regime” refers to the reigning cultural-political consensus. And by the “sacred” I do not mean a religious tradition or system of dogma. With this term I wish to denote that which claims our loyalty. The sacred is what we consecrate ourselves to serve. It is what animates our metaphysical imaginations. In the created order, the marital covenant is an instance of the sacred; national heritage is another. Religious loyalties transcend these more immediate loyalties, but also return to bless and purify them.

The post-war era has been characterized by a renunciation of the sacred, or what I call “disenchantment.” Since 1945, a strong consensus has held sway. It insists that responsible leadership involves weakening (or at least minimizing) strong claims and loosening inherited bonds. In the Anglosphere, this imperative found powerful expression in the political philosophy of John Rawls. He turned the metaphysical poverty of liberalism and utilitarianism into a civic virtue. Jacques Derrida offered a similar therapy in his theories of deconstruction. Under his guidance we learned how to disenchant the high god of truth.

These and other renunciations can create an illusion of commitment. Rawls wished to redouble our loyalty to liberalism. Derrida contributed mightily to the cult of critical theory. In a certain sense, therefore, they offered pedagogies of commitment. But it is important to recognize that they (and many others) encourage a “negative piety.” We must devote ourselves to disenchantment and the weakening of the sacred. Political correctness—the “dictatorship of relativism,” as Pope Benedict put it—serves as the disciplinary mechanism to enforce this regime of negative piety.

Nihilism is the proper word for the negative piety of the post-war era, though it rarely manifests itself in pure form. More often than not, something sacred is held in reserve, such as human dignity. In fact, many have written to argue that the post-war consensus and its loyalty to disenchantment flow from the West’s collective discovery of human dignity after Auschwitz. The individual is sacred; therefore, we have duty to smash all other idols and deconstruct their claims upon us. Human dignity is a jealous God, and we are to have no other. The dynamic remains, however: we serve the good by driving the sacred from public life.

Negative Piety and Politics

All of this is surely familiar. Saint John Paul II analyzed modern secular humanism, showing that it affirms what Rocco Buttiglione calls a “negative anthropology,” one articulate about threats to freedom but hostile to any account of what our freedom is for. I’m obviously drawing on that analysis with my own notion of “negative piety.” So I want to press toward the political. It is in this sphere of life that we feel the present crisis most acutely. It’s also the proper context in which to think about Donald Trump and what he foretells.

The place to start is with a simple observation: the rise of negative piety and negative anthropology in the postwar regime is correlated with a decline in political agency. Put simply, we are told that, as citizens, there is nothing much we can do other than to accept and validate the status quo.

This loss of political agency is widely felt, but difficult to explain. After all, the entire point of negative piety is to increase our agency. We enjoy a great deal of freedom in our personal lives, perhaps more than at any point in history. If I wish, I can even become a woman! Moreover, our political institutions continue to operate. We go to the polls and quarrel over candidates. The papers remain full of political commentary. Yet, in that commentary we are often told that we are subjects in a system rather than members of a polis. As Mark C. Henrie puts it, “The political system at all levels has moved from the (self-) government of peoples to the administration of things.” This means that political questions are increasingly transformed into legal, technical, and managerial questions.

Let me give some examples: Who is a member of the polis, and thus entitled to have a say in its future? This would seem to be a fundamental political question, if not the fundamental question. It was a crucial issue in the democratic era, defining nineteenth- and twentieth-century struggles against imperial domination and for the popular franchise. Now, however, we are increasingly told that we cannot decide, as a nation, who can migrate and immigrate. It is a question of human rights, some argue, and thus is a matter to be determined by international courts, not national legislatures. The issue is moral, not political.

Others argue that our globalized world makes it impossible to control immigration. In the United States, international law gets little traction in public life. Instead, one hears arguments that more restrictive immigration policies will not do anything to reduce inflows. Globalization is simply too strong and will overwhelm our efforts to exercise political agency. By this way of thinking, the issue is economic, not political.

An economic supersessionism characterizes almost all talk of globalization. Supply and demand. The principle of comparative advantage.  The factor-price equalization theorem. The laws of economics are powerful, we are told, and globalization is inevitable. Technology will advance, whether we want it to or not. In many ways, the intellectual atmosphere is not unlike the Marxism of old. Certain things are simply bound to happen, and as a consequence there are no consequential political choices to be made.  There is nothing that can be done to bring jobs back or guide technological change. The best we can do is elect experts who will help reconcile us to the inevitable future. Tech entrepreneurs and central bankers are today’s vanguard.

As an outsider, I will comment only briefly on the European Union. Though a political project of peacemaking in its early stages, it now operates as a post-political empire of utility and desire, one organized around the negative piety of obligatory disenchantment. I was recently in Portugal. One feels the tragedy of the place—from the seat of its own empire to a colony of Brussels in one generation! Poland’s history is quite different. But here too there is also the real possibility of becoming a colony administered, perhaps, by Poles, but always in accord with imperial edicts emanating from the empires of utility and desire. There is no alternative.

Populism and Political Agency

I take Donald Trump to be a populist, or at least someone savvy enough to take advantage of populist sentiments. His election is a symptom of today’s crisis of political agency.

How do we characterize the populist trend Trump represents? Whether in the United States or Europe, populism gets described in negative terms. It is anti-immigrant or anti-globalization. That is not inaccurate in some cases, but it is short sighted. We do better to say that today’s populism revolves around restorative and consolidating imperatives. Renew the national covenant! Restore sovereignty! Reestablish unity!

These restorative imperatives change the political landscape. The old categories of left and right have become less and less relevant. Our political contests are now framed as choices between the responsible and the irresponsible, between the mainstream and the “extreme,” and, more often than not, between the righteous and the wicked. Fascism, nationalism, racism—these are imprecations used to discredit. They evoke what the postwar era wanted to leave behind. But they are losing their political power to disqualify. Populism seems resistant to the postwar regime’s negative piety.

Commentators in the United States work hard to fold populism back into the empires of utility and desire, and thus minimize Trump’s political significance. They argue that economic globalization creates economic distress for some, and that immigrants compete for jobs and drive down wages. This implies that populism is a negative political externality of economic change, something to be managed by policies of redistribution, perhaps, or some other technique of economic and social management. Others see populism as “white identity politics.” This presumes that Trump voters have joined the new post-political politics of grievance and thus can be folded into the system of orchestrated recognitions and its carefully distributed patronage of moral capital that is overseen by multicultural commissars and diversity managers.

There is certainly some truth in these modes of analysis. Economic interests play in indisputable role, and we’re all influenced by the relentless rhetoric of identity politics. But they misjudge populism. It is primarily a response to the metaphysical poverty of the postwar era. The obligatory negative piety of the postwar regime has become politically toxic. That is because most people participate in public life through loyalty and devotion rather than leadership and decision-making. Loyalty and devotion, in turn, require sacred objects. This is why the army has often taken on mythic importance in some countries during the democratic era. The same goes for a fusion of civic pride and religious devotion. These are not defects in democratic culture. They reflect the perennial desire for sacred objects in public life, things that motivate the loyalty—and even heroic self-sacrifice—that gives ordinary people a sense of political agency.

Negative piety discredits loyalty and devotion as modes of civic participation. A political leader who promises something greater than utility, something higher than individual rights, invites denunciation as a fascist, racist, or demagogue. This is the political role of negative piety, a role widely endorsed by the postwar consensus. But it disenfranchises citizens, not by denying them the vote but by reducing them to private persons who participate in economic exchanges (the empire of utility) and claim the right to think and live as they see fit (the empire of desire). There is nothing sacred in public that requires their loyalty and service. As a consequence, the people, as such, have no political duties or public purposes.

This spiritual disenfranchisement of the masses explains why a chasm has opened up between the leaders and the led. Private persons are objects to be administered, something that can be done impersonally and from afar. The marketplace provides the clearest example. It functions best when regulators are cold, remote, and objective. Civic leadership, by contrast, requires a communion of loyalty that binds a society’s elite to the great mass of ordinary people over which the Great and the Good superintend. This also explains why progressivism is always utopian. It intuitively recognizes the necessity of the sacred, urging us to mobilize to serve the future, which alone is deemed worthy of our loyalty and self-sacrifice.

What Is to Be Done?

Where does this leave us? These are disorienting times, and I have no ready template. I can only report my own thoughts and difficulties.

There are good theological reasons to maintain a suspicion of idols, especially after the ideological brutalities of the twentieth century. Yet the metaphysical poverty of the postwar regime, however wise in its earlier stages, has become a problem. Political correctness is increasingly punitive and once unexceptional religious convictions are now censured. In this regime, Trump and other populists are heretics.

When it comes to obligatory negative piety, I am a heretic as well. This rapport leads me to relish the damage Trump does to the postwar regime. Anti-Trump hysteria indicates that the present cultural consensus in the West sees its legitimacy being challenged. But one should never be so optimistic as to imagine that things are so bad that they can’t get worse. There’s an element of truth to the present regime’s characterizations of populism as a threat to responsible governance. The populist leaders whom we cheer on may end up shipwrecking our societies. We need prudent populists, and it is not at all clear Trump is such a man.

The second difficulty I face is more difficult to explain. I am an American, which makes me a liberal in the broad sense of the term. I take for granted what Benjamin Constant called the liberty of the moderns. This is the freedom to live largely as a private person unmolested by legally enforced roles and public responsibilities. In its first stage, modern politics released individuals from inherited castes and expanded the scope for free action in the marketplace. In recent decades, the political project has been to loosen and even prohibit authoritative cultural and moral norms that limit personal self-definition.

Yet, as Constant pointed out, there is a different kind of freedom. He called it the liberty of the ancients, by which he meant the power of self-government. In this instance, the private person becomes an agent of public action, actively participating in the city’s decisions.  We are free to the extent that we have a say in the making of the laws that bind our freedom.

Constant thought that modern men desire personal independence more than political participation. He is perhaps right. But less interest does not mean zero interest. A desire for the liberty of the ancients remains. This desire drives political correctness. A great many people volunteer as enforcers of progressive ideals. They want to engage in public action that shapes a new future. The problem, of course, is that negative piety has a paradoxical character and this form of public action disenfranchises those who disagree. They are not wrong; they are bigots, racists, and xenophobes—deplorables. Only those blessed by the gift of negative piety have the moral legitimacy to shape the future, and this turns out to mean that only our technocratic elite is fit to rule.

Populism reflects a desire to recover the liberty of the ancients. It wants the sacred to return so that the run-of-the-mill person in mass culture can regain political agency. He does so not by ascending to an exalted role, but through the stirring emotions and simple acts of public loyalty that bind him to a national project, movement, or endeavor.

Here again I sympathize with populism, though again with anxiety. Too much has been privatized in our political imaginations, and we need to rebalance public life in the direction of the liberty of the ancients. People need to be re-enfranchised, which means restoring to them public roles rather than simply counting their votes. The danger, of course, comes from the likelihood that we will overshoot the mark. It is entirely reasonable to worry about an illiberal populism. The intensity of today’s negative piety almost guarantees over-compensation, just as its relentless rhetoric of denunciation—what Pierre Manent calls “the fanaticism of the center”—is likely to guarantee the rise of an irresponsible, even authoritarian leadership for those who dissent from the postwar regime.

The decline of marriage and religion, encouraged by the negative piety of the post-war regime, also makes us vulnerable. The family functions as a context for political agency in the broadest sense. In family life, we devote ourselves to the common good of home and hearth rather than our individual interests and desires. Religion offers another realm of political participation. As St. Paul makes clear in his first letter to the Corinthians, those devoted to Christ constitute a single body. In the supernatural society of the church, one is never simply a private person.

Therefore, as fewer marry and have children, and as fewer are united in a common religious faith, nationalism and other, more narrowly political loyalties become more prominent and more dangerous. Our national heritages are sacred, and it is fitting to say so. But patriotism is only one element in a proper order of love and loyalty. I have no confidence that the populism that elected Trump will restore that proper order.

There is a third difficulty, one easier to explain. Global capitalism poses a grave threat to political life. Non-economic loyalties impede the expansion of markets. For this reason, capitalism generally seeks to transform social roles and interactions into the privatized pursuit of individual interests. This is why the institutions of global capitalism are allied with the negative piety of the post-war regime and use their power to enforce political correctness. Whether we call it Christian democracy or social democracy, in the non-communist West, the great achievement of the postwar era was the establishment of political control over capitalism.  We need to reestablish political control. Trump and other populists are aware of this necessity, but they have not reckoned with depth of the challenge. We need to harness the global economy to serve public ends, and do so in ways that do not undermine its virtues. This is not going to be easy.

Last fall, I signed a letter in support of Trump for president. Some of my friends were appalled; others thought such a public endorsement unwise. These were not unreasonable reactions. Today’s populism has a revolutionary character, and revolutions are perilous. But I was and remain convinced that we cannot live in metaphysical poverty. We need to be empowered by loyalties and devotions that stir our hearts. Populism may be dangerous, but it reflects the correct intuition that my country and my citizenship cannot be bought and sold, nor can it be subordinated to institutions and agencies devoted solely to the protection and promotion of individual rights.

Our job is to purify and broaden the populist impulse. My intuition is that the postwar era is ending. Negative piety has deprived the West of an energizing loyalty and devotion, and this is making many politically anxious and restless. A desire for metaphysical density is emerging. An era of re-enchantment is beginning. In this time of transition, we should work to restore the sacred to public life, but we need to do so with a rigorous theological suspicion of idolatry—and with a keen sense of the considerable achievements of the postwar era, achievements we should work to conserve.


Sorry, PDF downloads are available to subscribers only.
Subscribe Now
Already a subscriber? Log In