As critiques of liberalism have become more pronounced, alarm bells about possible alternatives to liberalism have grown louder. These alarms, ironically enough, have often been sounded most emphatically by American writers who otherwise describe themselves as conservatives.
In response to the recent challenges to liberalism, conservatives have generally dropped the pretense that they are anything other than liberals, or “classical liberals,” as they prefer to say. But what has enabled the conservative recolonization of liberalism is precisely the fact that no one else—that is, no “liberals” or progressives—any longer bothers to occupy the territory, or live up to the standards, of “liberalism.” The Left forfeited the contest over liberalism years ago, as it steadily (and often with good reason) transformed the liberal moniker into the progressive one. Conservatives, true to form, simply took up the ownership of a passé label. Only conservatives, it seems, have a bad conscience that requires them to prove that they are “good liberals”; progressives do not concern themselves with proving their “liberal” bona fides, much less their inner conservatism. More importantly, progressives also do not accept conservatives’ claim to be “liberal”—in spite of the fact that conservatives have reduced their project to precisely this point.
For at least fifty years, however, the intellectual project of the American Right had been to argue that it was something more than merely the rear guard of liberalism. In doing so, the Right was challenging a common view, articulated by Louis Hartz in the early 1950s, that America is by nature a “liberal society” inhospitable to any authentically conservative political stance. The Right responded by arguing that the basic “liberal” features of American society were “conservative” (i.e., old and English) in origin and therefore that conservatives provided their surest safeguard.
The publication of Why Liberalism Failed by Notre Dame political theorist Patrick Deneen proved to be a turning point in this respect. Most conservatives rushed to distance themselves from its comprehensive rejection of liberalism. Some, like R. R. Reno of First Things (May 2018), cast themselves as defenders of a liberal “tradition” and “set of institutions” rather than a liberal ideology. The Summer 2018 issue of Modern Age, subtitled A Conservative Review, carried the title “Two Cheers for Liberalism.” In a similar vein, David Frum at the Atlantic (November 2018) called for the revival of a “liberal Republicanism” that accepts certain features of the modern welfare state but seeks to impose some market discipline on it. “What conservatives are conserving, after all,” Frum wrote glibly, “is a liberal order”—though in a world of parapolitical neoliberal governance structures and globally mobile capital, it is not clear what referent conservatives intend by the “liberal order.”
Conservatives who understand themselves as defenders of liberalism face yet another problem. Speaking of “conservatism” risks giving the impression that conservatives hold a position of power or might otherwise have some opportunity to conserve the things they profess to cherish. In fact, conservatism is primarily a would-be courtly ideology, a mirror of princes which neither interests the prince nor itself offers much to guide the exercise of princely powers. Conservatives have focused almost exclusively on the theoretical underpinnings of republican government and market-oriented society, but this self-understanding has made them unable to wield power effectively and largely uninterested in doing so.
A Roof without Foundations
Since 2016, the problems of “liberal” conservatism have only become more obvious, both domestically and as a matter of political positioning abroad. For the first time in a long time, the Right holds power in an array of countries, including a majority of Latin American countries, above all Brazil, as well as in significant parts of central and eastern Europe and the United Kingdom. Yet establishment or “liberal” conservatives can hardly take credit for these electoral successes—indeed, they have often sought to undermine them—and they have steadfastly refused to update their policy agenda to address the new situation. Unfortunately, the only attempt to provide coherence for the new “nationalist-populist” movements has been the tawdry effort of Steve Bannon, which was decisively rejected in 2018 by Matteo Salvini and Marine Le Pen. Not realizing the irony, Bannon sought to create something of a “Nationalist International”—a project for which no nationalist leader would ever seek leadership from an American populist out of power. Meanwhile, as Nancy Fraser has argued, the Left has largely abandoned its classic focus on the working classes for the trendier (and more profitable) ground of progressive neoliberalism—a commitment to furthering the paradigm of globally mobile capital, with a veneer of personal liberation adopted as a part of its marketing.
In this context, defense-of-liberalism conservatism has nowhere to fit. Conservatives like to speak about market-based economies (in reality, the deployment of market-based sorting mechanisms with an eye to private rather than public interests) and liberal constitutionalism, as though conservatives provide the essential support upon which such modern accomplishments rest. In reality, however, the governing ideology of neoliberalism has, thus far, successfully provided its own support by redefining itself as progressive. Gestures toward progressive concepts of personal liberty legitimate and, therefore, support the nexus of neoliberal corporations and governments (or more accurately, captured regulatory environments). Liberal conservatism has thus failed in two respects. It provides support for an ideology, classical liberalism, which isn’t the regnant one now, if it ever was. And by its own standard of providing support, it has failed to find anyone who wants its advice. Continuing to live off the largesse of the fusionist institutions of old, it has become a roof without foundations.
In other words, liberal conservatives seek to justify themselves before a standard of “liberalism” that is self-defined and self-judged, but these conservatives are at the same time rejected by self-identified liberals who label them reactionaries instead. And when conservatives reply that these “liberals” have ceased to be “truly liberal,” they simply beg the question of whether the liberal order they purportedly defend actually exists in any substantial way.
This mode of conservative argumentation has been going in circles for more than fifty years. It was 1964 when William Henry Chamberlin, the conservative theorist, echoed George Dangerfield in complaining of “the strange death of that respectable political and economic doctrine known as liberalism,” and in maintaining that conservatives were the true liberals. Yet even in 1964, the “liberal” quest to construct optimal markets had already been exposed as a cloak for the will to power (for example, by the Frankfurt School). And the key features of modern markets and liberal politics, as any reader of the poststructuralists knew, were not the price mechanism and political neutrality but the mastery of human behavior and the realization of a consumer society. Whatever conservatism’s excuse was in 1964, that excuse no longer exists today.
Liberalism and the State
Resolving assertions of “liberalism” into their constituent parts can be clarifying. If we accept an account typical in the writings of Pierre Manent, original liberalism rested on the distinction between civil society and the state: a certain limited set of concerns justified the creation of the state, which in turn would protect civil society as the true field of human liberty. The imposition of this distinction subsequently prompted, among figures such as Rousseau and Marx, a reaction that sought to cure the separation at the heart of liberalism while also seeking to preserve, if on a higher level, the liberty at which liberal politics aimed.
To distinguish civil society and the state requires an articulation of the roles of each, anchoring the most important human activities (for liberals) in the former and limiting the objects pursued by the latter. In its fullest sense, then, liberalism has always involved (1) a justification of the power of the state (whether in state-of-nature terms or utilitarian terms, etc.), which in turn (2) establishes a separation between matters of state and the operation of society. In this sense, “liberalism” is not a society (as in “liberal society”) but rather an account of the power of the state and its purpose, albeit a limited one. The elements of political power—“state capacity,” law courts, judicial procedure, etc.—already existed before the new political theory which explained them arose, but the new political theory gave an explanation that in turn shaped how they were used. It is this dynamic which causes anachronistic expansions of the history of liberalism to include, for example, claims to originating judicial procedure in the common law, even when such procedures can be traced to Roman law rather than “liberal” sources.
What we call “liberal society” is one that results from the liberal orientation of political power toward “liberty,” both in theory and in the design of fundamental law. Almost every particular civil liberty shows this development. Liberty of the press, for example, originally meant only liberty from prior restraint in the operation of presses (i.e., no licensing) but eventually entailed, on the basis of liberal-expressivist theories of human behavior, the liberalization of censorship, blasphemy, sedition, and other laws legally distinct from liberty of the press. Though American conservatives often speak of the Progressive movement as a corruption of liberalism, it is a natural, even correct outgrowth of the liberal achievement in a democratic context to be concerned with identifying and expanding the conditions of liberty (health, security, etc.)—and this expansion was precisely what the Progressives attempted to bring about. For this purpose they successfully employed the means of state.
By contrast, because the American conservative defense of liberalism has emphasized the “moral conditions” of liberalism, or the “traditional” elements of “Western civilization” that have enabled liberalism to flourish, conservatives have neglected the state. Such neglect could not be said of Founding-era “conservatives” like Alexander Hamilton. Speaking of “the authorities essential to the care of the common defence” along with other responsibilities of the federal government, Hamilton in Federalist no. 23 says that “these powers ought to exist without limitation.” Modern American conservatives, on the other hand, in making their task the defense of liberalism in its market-oriented and social aspects, have made themselves unable to articulate the purpose of power, and unable to understand the origins of a “neoliberalism” at ease with the use of power to establish markets.
Liberalism was a theory to explain the state; and conservatism was a theory to explain liberties, but not the state. Accordingly, neoliberalism triumphed and neoconservatism (that is, all liberal forms of conservatism) failed for a very simple reason: while neoliberalism embraced the state without the common good, thus leading to the very definition of a bad regime, liberal conservatism embraced the common good without the state. Conservatives never sought to explain “the state”; instead they sought to explain the (supposed) precursors to the state. Hence they constructed a political position of perfect moral purity (“We are the ones for the common good”) while, in practice, merely criticizing the progressive moral posture of the regnant neoliberals. And since neoliberalism made its bargain with progressive rather than conservative moralism, the conservative position became one with no political reference points whatsoever.
As a political project, the modern conservative effort of articulating the moral underpinning of markets, as well as antiquated approaches to the limitation of political power (e.g., balance-of-power theory), has reached a terminus. This endpoint should, however, be a harmless one, since conservatism is not the regnant political ideology. The current holder of executive power in the United States is not a conservative of the “classical” (modern) variety; and by the conservatives’ own account, former limitations on political power have already been outstripped by the rise of the administrative state. Thus the end of liberal conservatism should involve no crisis of state, since according to conservatives the state has already ceased to be “truly liberal.” Instead of the fireworks of a great political conflagration, then, the decline of conservatism will merely produce, as it has produced, the histrionics of anger and self-doubt.
Returning to the Court
There was a time when political writers authored “mirrors of princes” as a way of outlining the virtues princes should cultivate and the deeds they should perform, as well as (for educational purposes) the reasons for pursuing those virtues and deeds. Modern political writing has taken another direction, however, creating instead ideologies that operate within the existing framework of a political party to justify its fundamental position and bolster its platform in various respects—“mirrors of parties” aimed at cultivating one combative political stance rather than the politics of a ruling prince. Conservatism is one such mirror, articulating the underpinnings of the (present) Republican Party platform while calling for minor tweaks to its fundamental positions.
What the rise of “populist” sentiment signifies in the United States and elsewhere is, as many have noted, merely that previously regnant parties are insufficiently differentiated on the political matters motivating popular sentiment. To grasp this point, we simply have to return to our earlier account of neoliberal regimes as “the state without the common good.” The principal policy position of neoliberals, hence of the Western political class as a whole, has been to use the powers of state to sublimate the state’s own authority in favor of the nondemocratic, parapolitical institutions we call “the liberal order.” And because this regime legitimates itself by selectively appealing to progressive moral principles, social progressives have succeeded in obtaining their agenda (through the use of cultural institutions, with the considerable assistance of business corporations as well as at least the toleration of the state). The proper politics of the state, however, has remained obscured by the dominant neoliberal ideology, which both “mirrors of parties” reflect but do not challenge or even comprehend.
In response to this dynamic, many conservatives have adopted a version of the “Tocqueville critique.” Toward the end of Democracy in America, Tocqueville foresees the transformation of the people into a “herd of timid and industrious animals,” cowed before an impressive administrative apparatus that would stifle the liberty that the modern state was supposed to facilitate. Like supplementalist conservatives who believe that conservatism provides the necessary undergirding of the modern liberal order, Tocquevillian conservatives present themselves as friends of liberalism who see liberalism’s faults and seek to restrain the egalitarian principles at work in modern democracies. They therefore tend to argue for administrative decentralization and a return of the civic-oriented virtues that enabled the democracy of the New England townships, which they believe could be valuable to the American polity as a whole.
But it is doubtful whether the noble moderation of Tocquevillian conservatism is sufficient to address the problems it identifies—because these problems are not merely consequences of an immoderate egalitarianism but are in fact necessary conditions for the functioning of the present economic system. The restraints on egalitarian democracy that Tocqueville praised, from self-interest properly understood to religious guidance of the American imagination, worked only as culturally embedded practices dependent on the traditions of aristocratic centuries. Today, however, Tocquevillian conservatism has been co-opted by a liberal paradigm that uses Tocqueville to define the acceptable limit of its critique, and to steer conservative energies toward virtuous citizenship and local initiatives—important projects in themselves but projects which have no effect on how the state itself wields power. To be sure, Tocqueville has provided access to the deepest tendencies of American democracy, but the conservative attempt to become friends of liberalism by charitable correction has been rebuffed, and the friendship is now one-way. When the other party conceives of you as an enemy, then you are enemies, not friends.
Transcending the Left-Right Dichotomy
If we are to speak accurately, then the Left-Right paradigm, as Guillaume de Thieulloy has emphasized, describes agency rather than content. The action of the Left marks off the boundaries of the Right; whatever is not admitted by the Left is the Right. From 1789 onward, the politically motive force sat on the left wing of the National Assembly, and on the right were those adopting a more moderate but still revolutionary line. The market-oriented liberal position claimed by many conservatives today was a left-wing opinion when Frédéric Bastiat took his seat on the left in the National Assembly of 1848.
Responding to the demise of liberal conservatism, therefore, cannot simply be a matter of forging a new intellectual synthesis (e.g., a “new conservatism”) that pairs, say, a liberal approach to free speech with a right-wing approach to religious institutions; every such platform is necessarily located on the right, so long as the Left exists. Since the boundaries are set by the Left, a different combination of right-wing and left-wing stances, in itself, does nothing to change the direction of political agency.
At the same time, conservative and progressive efforts to articulate a “mirror of parties” have failed because such an approach necessarily obscures the substantive goals of the state. Hence the political or state-oriented element of party platforms has remained fixedly neoliberal, with most political parties and associated ideologies altering it only at the margin. So what are conservatives, or progressives for that matter, to do?
Overcoming the Left-Right dynamic, and neoliberal ideological hegemony, is only possible through the selective adoption of compatible left-wing and right-wing political positions into an essentially unchallenged political force. The Left-Right dichotomy can be transcended when such platforms are implemented by national unity governments exercising political agency, as in situations as disparate as Italy and China.
This prospect is considerably less alarming than it might seem; indeed, such alarm helps to illustrate the current political predicament. For already the state apparatus is “captured” by interests that orient it toward a consistent neoliberal or managerialist policy, and it has sought to insulate that policy by institutionalizing it in transpolitical governing bodies and legal structures. Even in the process of sublimating the state’s authority toward a liberal end (of no directly intended common good), then, neoliberals have facilitated the construction of an enormous state apparatus, whose political force has increased in spite of all challengers.
Indeed, early liberalism’s emphasis on the role of the state provides a sufficient pretext for reclaiming it through politically assertive movements. The defining element of the new “nonliberal” regimes in the West has been to turn the power of the state back toward national interests, from the standpoint of sovereignty, cultural coherence, and to a lesser extent (so far) economic policy—goals which are justified even within the liberal tradition, although they do not depend on it. Insofar as such movements can propose a unitary model of the state’s purposes in contrast to the self-weakening neoliberal model under which Western states now operate, they would return to the lost genre which proposed a scheme of action for a political ruler. As movements on both the left and the right engage in this sort of activity, we could see political reorientations toward national unity governments form with suddenness and rapidity. To answer that situation, nonliberals on the left and the right must conceive their policy positions well in advance. In place of lending credibility to party platforms, they will have to outline the agenda not simply of a current political party, but of the state itself. The mirror of princes was once located in precisely this space.
Friends of Nonliberalism?
Discussion of postliberal political orders is often shrouded in confusion, as though it were unclear or always potentially dangerous to speak of a coming nonliberal position. Arguably the reverse is the case. Liberal political orders always underspecify their intended goal; they speak of cultivating or enabling liberty, but remain deliberately indeterminate about what that liberty would be ordered to. To speak of a political order outside the terms of liberalism, however, is simply to specify the good at which it aims and articulate the means toward achieving it. This possibility is already embedded in conservative attempts to supplement liberalism with reminders of the importance of virtue and the common good; and it is embedded in economic progressivism’s vision of shared prosperity.
To be sure, liberal political orders have attempted to justify themselves on the grounds that conflicting accounts of the good create irreconcilable conflict that can only be addressed through sophisticated procedural mechanics. Here lies the irony of attempts to claim that neoliberal political projects such as the European Union do not suffer from a democratic deficit. The argument that substantively democratic results (greater guarantee of rights and equality, for example) cover over the lack of procedural democracy, an argument deployed to defend the EU, can be employed with even greater facility for nonliberal purposes. A government acting beyond liberal limitations on the scope of political power can, by the same logic, claim a substantively democratic result on the basis of securing its people’s national interests, as full procedural accountability was already rejected at an earlier stage of neoliberal policy development. The late-liberal governance framework may thus provide an unintended reason for articulating political positions simply in terms of the common good.
Since the conservative buttressing of liberalism has proved unwelcome to liberals, several benefits would accrue to conservatives were they to shift instead toward friendship with—including friendly critique of—the coming nonliberalism. In the first place, such a stance should open up conservatives to the consideration of policy options outside, for instance, the restrictive American constitutional space marked off by the limited “mirror of parties” strategy. The platform of a national unity government could draw on populist economic strategies, left-wing interest in labor representation, and right-wing corporatism. Such an approach would also help rectify what Pierre Manent called in 1997 “the transatlantic misunderstanding”—the lack of exchange between the American conservative “party of society” and the European “party of the state.” Moreover, since conservatives failed to secure their ground in society, they have no alternative but to use the state for the furtherance of their ends. As they do so, American conservatives will have nowhere to look but at policy options articulated by regimes with more open consideration of their state capacity.
At the same time, self-described liberals frequently burden themselves with the ideology of liberalism even in cases in which they simply want to obtain a substantive good, e.g., better access to health care. In these cases, a robust concern for state capacity and the unifying power of the nation-state is present in a wide variety of liberal positions. (As the British liberal Hobhouse put it, “There is no opposition between liberty as such and control as such, for every liberty rests on a corresponding act of control.”) If liberals, as conservatives say, aren’t truly liberal any more, then it may be easier for “nonliberal” conservatives to find something to agree with them about—for example, certain elements of protectionist trade policy, or even labor-oriented rationales for immigration restriction.
It may thus be possible to achieve a wider level of cooperation than one might expect on what could be called the “first-wave” restoration of the role of politics and the state in orienting human beings toward the common good. In the present situation, there are many viable forms of “common good” justifying policy programs: some are welfarist (aimed at a base line of human welfare through state mechanisms), others are national-interest-based (aimed at civic solidarity and international competitiveness), and others still religious in certain contexts (aimed at clarifying the unavoidable spiritual element of every polity).
In the face of relentless criticism of liberalism, conservatives have, strangely in the end, admitted that they are liberals after all. There’s only one problem: aside from themselves, there are no other “true” liberals left, at least not liberals of the “neutralist” variety. On both the “liberal” or progressive and the “nonliberal” side, politics in Western countries can increasingly be understood in terms of nation-state-based, welfarist policies. And while it is true that a common-good-oriented politics need not be limited to welfarism, it is a step in the right direction. “Ordinary” people want “the common good” and understand that in terms of national integrity and the benefits enjoyed in common, whether monetary or cultural/religious. For all the recent discussion of “integralist” theses on the spiritual power, for example, “first-wave integralism” describes an approach to political power that would draw considerable support.
Rather than asking the question “What should conservatives/progressives do?” considerable advances can be made through certain purely practical considerations: “How can the integrity of the national political community be assured?” “How can commercial activity and technological development continue to be turned toward the common good, and toward our own strategic advantage?” “What can we do with the reins of power, that is, the state, to ensure the common good of our citizens?” Questions such as these are not “antiliberal”—they are simply questions that one asks when one’s political thinking isn’t distorted by liberal limitations on the scope of politics.
On the politically active left and the politically rising right, the state now occupies a much greater role than it has heretofore in postwar and modern conservative thought. Those outside the neoliberal paradigm should thus think of themselves as writers in the “mirror of princes” tradition, advising the state on its wielding of political power. For conservatives this may mean learning to advise on the use of the administrative state rather than plaintive, nostalgic, and counterproductive calls for its abolition. It may mean giving greater aid and comfort to assertive, but still politically responsible, nation-state-oriented forces in Europe. When conservatives position themselves as friends of “nonliberal” political thought, it doesn’t mean uncritical acceptance of every illiberal movement; nor does it require tossing out elements of our legal tradition that liberalism has unfairly taken credit for. It simply means thinking and acting politically to defend common interests, and to use the state effectively. That can partly be explained by, but does not depend upon, “liberalism.”