The Only Way Out Is Through

In this exhausted political moment, a  reactionary antipolitics is ascendent — one that looks to "traditional" aesthetic and religious pursuits as an antidote to the spiritual dead-end of conventional "woke" liberalism and free-market conservatism. 

For a moment it seemed that there was an alternative after all. Winter was turning to spring and an avowed democratic socialist was winning presidential primaries. In hushed tones we called him the front-runner. Soon he would be organizer-in-chief. Everything was getting apocalyptic – a time of revelation, of crisis. Nothing would be the same. Normal strove to reassert itself: Phone calls were made; announcements issued; the old script again, all of a sudden. But the disintegration of that familiar universe wouldn’t be stopped so easily. Lockdowns, the vaporization of shared life and then its explosive reappearance. Precincts up in flames, bodies in the streets. In the summer sun you could smell a new world wafting up from the molten blacktop. 

And then – what? I’m still not sure, exactly. The hard edges hemming in our reality, once blurred, regained their solidity. Slowly, all but imperceptibly, kairos gave way once more to chronos; it was Ordinary Time again. Just enough suburban white people voted for normality for it to reclaim its place in the Oval Office. The lesser evil triumphed. The boot continued to stamp on human faces, allowing them — not always, by any means, but often enough — just enough space to breathe. 

This closure of possibility is the fundamental trauma of our political moment. It often feels like the left today, in a strict sense, does not have a future, only various versions of an indefinitely extended present: the repetition compulsion of the Bernie 2024 camp; the borderline misanthropic despair of the climate doomers; the podcasters, the posters, the publishers, commodifying their diagnoses of our collective terminal condition. If social media is to be believed, young people are increasingly “blackpilled.” Their eyes have been opened and at last they can see the endless nothingness stretching out before them. 

For the most part, the manifestations of this attitude of political resignation have been innocuous. If someone wants to get really into gardening or grilling or ketamine right now, or to partake of what Alcoholics Anonymous calls the “geographical cure,” I can’t begrudge them. But our ambient hopelessness has also fueled a seductive but noxious ideological tendency: a reactionary antipolitics that looks to allegedly traditional aesthetic and religious pursuits as an antidote to the spiritual dead-end of both conventional (“woke”) left-liberalism and free-market conservatism. An array of features, profiles, and thinkpieces over the last few months have given it labels — the “post-left,” the “New Right,” the “postliberal right,” the “vibe shift” — and traced its key sites, acolytes, outposts, and hangers-on. Among them are Peter Thiel, the podcast Red Scare, the magazine Compact, the fake New York microneighborhood “Dimes Square,” and something called Urbit, which as best as I can tell is a version of Substack for blockchain enthusiasts, a cinematic universe of Twitter and Tumblr accounts that talk a lot about “extinction” as a sort of spiritual disposition. 

Yes, it’s a freakshow — New Yorkers, tech bros, and media sinecurists with too much time on their hands and an adolescent compulsion to provoke. But there’s a certain hallucinatory clarity to this scene’s thinking, too. However absurd the result, they have ultimately done little more than to follow to their logical conclusion a set of intuitions that are shared more broadly on today’s left — especially those seeking to synthesize Christian and socialist commitments. 

For a long time, mainstream, secular socialists casually wrote off the possibility of such a synthesis. And indeed it is not a straightforward task to reconcile an emancipatory political vision with a religious tradition that has for millennia, in its institutional form, overwhelmingly backed the side of power and exploitation. But in recent years, with the renascent socialist movement desperate for allies wherever they can be found, it’s become almost gauche to suggest that there’s a unique set of difficulties that Christian socialism must navigate. 

Not all religious anticapitalisms are created equal. Faith can nurture revolutionary hope in our collective ability to overcome a seemingly indestructible mode of production. But it can also be wielded to suggest that such hope is unnecessary; that a well-tended spirituality, expressed through a return to “traditional” forms of life, is by itself an effective avenue of resistance to capitalism. It is a tempting bargain in dark times — very much like other deals that purport to be from God but in fact have a different author. 

The anticapitalist left often likes to imagine itself engaged in a form of a siege warfare. Capitalism is likened to a fortress, hulking and impenetrable. Our task is to occupy the territory on its outside — to encircle it, to cut it off from external reinforcements, until its defenses shrivel up and we can move in. This search for capitalism’s outside goes hand in hand with — and is partially borne from — a paranoid fear of “cooption.” Those who have come of age politically in the twenty-first century have witnessed an endless parade of “outsiders” who soon became firmly ensconced on the inside. Rare is the subversive gesture that is not replicated before long by some corporate social media account. But this spectacle has only intensified the search for some exterior pivot point, one that will be forever beyond the reach of the powers that be. 

This is how many Christian leftists understand religion, or more broadly, “tradition” — a feature they share with all the various postliberals who reject the leftist label entirely. On this view, the crucial feature of capitalism is its internally revolutionary character, its tendency, as Marx and Engels put it, to turn all that is solid into air. Capitalism can easily metabolize any call for “change” (exhibit A: Barack Obama), so the only gristle that could actually muck up its guts must come from the past. After all, the history of the last several centuries is a record of the obstacles that capitalism has overcome in its march to world domination; to figure out which obstacles we ought to erect in our own time, we should therefore look backwards. 

For instance, the theologian and occasional political critic David Bentley Hart has “every confidence that we will find a way to turn ‘socialism’ into just another name for late-modern liberal individualism.” The only way to inoculate against cooption is to reframe socialism as “a Romantic rebellion against modernity,” even affirming “an essentially nostalgic belief in the hierarchy of those subsidiary estates and institutions that naturally evolve out of religious, communal, and social life.” Here Hart, who claims the socialist label, is hard to distinguish from the full-throated Compact reactionary Patrick Deneen, who summarizes the inexorable consequences of any revolutionary politics: “Traditional forms of life, which offer some resistance to concentrations of power, would be relentlessly targeted by the supposed agents of liberation.” Considering that Hart has sought to distance himself from right-wing postliberalism, it is striking how much he shares its animating concerns: the encroachment of modernity on tradition, the value of social and institutional stability, and the wisdom of looking to the past to find alternatives to our present distress.

“Tradition” is of course a slippery beast, and its presumed contents vary widely. For the aesthetes of the downtown Manhattan art world, it seems mostly to denote a culture of art for art’s sake and respect for the prerogatives of individual genius (widely but falsely imagined as a premodern inheritance). Allegedly, there’s a cohort of recent “converts” for whom tradition is a synonym for the Roman Catholic Church, though how many of them have ever set foot in an RCIA classroom is anyone’s guess. In the pages of Compact, it means most saliently the right-wing orthodoxy on sex and gender — or “biology,” the transphobic dogwhistle their writers are fond of repeating without a trace of irony.

Well, as Freud taught us, we all want to climb back inside the womb when the going gets tough. But none of these would-be havens in a heartless world are as well insulated from liberalism as today’s fugitives would like them to be. Christ himself anticipated that in the upheaval wrought by his coming, fathers and mothers would be divided against sons and daughters; it is no surprise, then, that struggles for justice today have, as always, caused battle lines to be drawn in the supposedly pre-political realms of family, gender relations, art and religion. For the postliberals, the encroachment of the profane on the sacred is today’s major political emergency. “Nothing beautiful survives the culture war,” Atlantic staff writer Elizabeth Bruenig laments, in an essay on the politicization of parenthood following the leak of Samuel Alito’s opinion overturning Roe v. Wade. It’s an increasingly common cri de coeur among those searching for sanctuary outside the reach of liberal modernity. It is one thing to announce your intention to tend your own garden, disillusioned by conventional politics; it is another thing to find a plot to till where “politics” — which is to say, power, conflict, the challenges of collective decision-making — have not already taken root.  

But all of this was supposed to be an anticapitalism. To ward off suspicion that there’s nothing more to its political vision than boring conservative grievance, the postliberal right often tells its story about culture war in the language of class struggle. This move sees “the working class” as the repository of “tradition,” remaining faithful to the values of family, faith, community, hard work, and the significance of place. The “ruling class,” the “professional-managerial class,” or simply “the elites,” on the other hand, are depicted as the rootless soldiers of feminism, antiracism, the LGBTQ movement, and everything else lumped under the umbrellas of “cultural liberalism” or “identity politics.” Class is culture. 

Strained as it is, this framework has been articulated in different ways. Patrick Deneen trots out a conspiratorial version that rhymes with older stories about “Cultural Marxism”: “The hedonistic and liberatory object of ‘total revolution,’” he claims, was in the late twentieth century melded with “the ‘conservative’ structures of technocratic and economic power that maintained and deepened the rule of a small oligarchic class.” Fêted Dimes Square playwright Matthew Gasda has a grander narrative, of the sort that a precocious high schooler might produce after reading about Max Weber on Wikipedia. For him, the tyranny of the “PMC” is “part of the secularization of the modern age,” through which “bureaucracy… replaced faith; bonds of honor and tradition gave way to scraps of paper, and folkways hardened into regulations.” The German politician Sahra Wagenknecht, a favorite among American postliberals, is not so fatalistic; she still holds out hope for a left that addresses itself to workers who “subscribe to conservative values, because they want stable communities, just like the workers of the past.”

Whatever form it takes, the conflation of class and culture has become ubiquitous. Even people who would never affirm the thesis in its strong form can find themselves lapsing into the assumption that there’s something a bit bourgeois about being gay. Witness Danielle Allen, Harvard political theorist and aspiring Democratic politician, explaining in the Washington Post what she sees as the germ of truth in her opponents’ worldview: “Elite organizations … are, in fact, generally left-leaning and have sufficient combined power to squelch socially conservative ways of life, particularly those linked to traditional family structures.” It’s gotten to the point that even Compact co-founder and conservative Catholic Sohrab Ahmari thinks it’s gone too far, according to his dispatch on this June’s Labor Notes conference. “At its worst, this tendency bizarrely classes adjunct professors and the like among the ruling class,” Ahmari observes, “while oligarchs like Elon Musk are made out to be working-class heroes, of a kind, simply because they defy some progressive orthodoxies.” He’s not wrong.

This slippage is not without precedent on the left. The Hungarian philosopher Tamás Gáspár Miklós has critiqued the tendency to understand the working class chiefly as a “worthy cultural competitor of the ruling class.” In Tamás’s view, this tendency originated with Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the eighteenth century and was picked up by twentieth-century socialists such as Karl Polanyi and Edward Thompson. The historian and political theorist Melinda Cooper has also critiqued the recurrent impulse on the left to define capitalism as “a force of social disintegration.” While capitalism has undeniable disruptive tendencies, Cooper argues, capitalists also have a vested interest in social reproduction. Stable, fruitful families that teach children to work hard and do their duty don’t just counterbalance capitalism’s volatility but are also key to ensuring a steady labor supply. This is why, as Cooper demonstrates, the kind of “pro-family” policies that postliberals advocate in the name of resisting the hegemony of capitalism have long been championed by unapologetically neoliberal intellectuals and policymakers.

As Tamás observes, the class-as-culture view is readymade to provide consolation in times when proper revolution doesn’t seem to be on the horizon, since it holds that “regardless of the outcome of the class struggle, the autonomy and separateness of the working class is an intrinsic social value.” Its appeal today, then, when the short-term outcome of the class struggle looks quite dire, is obvious. But too much consolation and you can forget what you were disappointed about in the first place. This is precisely the outcome sought by the hard-right conservatives and Silicon Valley thought leaders who’ve recently flocked to the post-left position on culture and class. They have not simply overlooked the material dimension of class struggle, as Ahmari suggests; they are in fact actively invested in the maintenance of class hierarchy and see the defense of supposed working-class folkways as a means to that end. 

Read closely and you can see them give the game away. Christopher Caldwell sees “the transition from a traditional to a purely capitalist society” registered in the moment, somewhere in the twentieth century, when “old habits of deference … no longer bound working men.” This is an anticapitalism that fights in the name of another half-remembered era’s class hierarchy; an anticapitalism that objects principally to the fact that, as Marx argued, capitalism sharpens class conflict and brings it to a head. As the influential Bay Area techno-libertarian blogger Scott Alexander puts it, “Economic class warfare is Marxist, but here in the US … class is also about culture.” Marx sought the self-abolition of the working class; the postliberal right seeks to deploy the tools of “culture” to keep it permanently in its place. 

In other words, today’s family-values traditionalists are no less useful to capitalism than their Reagan-era predecessors. At a moment when pockets of heroic workers at Amazon and Starbucks and in our schools and hospitals are confronting the rule of capital with a militancy arguably not seen in generations, corporatist fantasies of a return to traditional contentedness can only block the path of genuine political transformation. 

At this point, the postliberal right has argued itself into a bit of an ideological tangle. Culture war is class war; but class war also has a disturbing tendency to decompose traditional values. Working-class tradition apparently needs defending in the face of a predatory liberal elite, but the tradition in question includes “old habits of deference” to workers’ aristocratic betters. The logical solution, one this coalition’s more fearless members have already arrived at, is to create a new aristocracy. Born in hopelessness about the prospects of collective action — the conviction that the ruling class knows how to coopt any campaign of resistance mounted against it — this vision ends in hope for an authoritarian deus ex machina, some strong, uncorrupted nobility that can break the power of the woke bureaucracy and release the working class to rebuild its traditional communities in peace. 

Postliberals have conceptualized this authority in a few different ways. One notable stream has emerged out of the conservative legal movement and looks primarily to the judiciary. Its leading light is Harvard Law School professor and Compact contributing editor Adrian Vermeule. As James Chappel has explained in this magazine, Vermeule is a critic from the right of the originalist philosophy of the Supreme Court’s conservatives. If originalism focuses on rolling back the rights regime created by twentieth-century social liberals, Vermeule’s “common good constitutionalism” instead advocates the use of the law to impose conservative principles directly. While hailing the Court’s decision in Dobbs, for instance, Vermeule recently expressed hope that it would eventually go further and argue “that the Constitution, rightly interpreted, recognizes an affirmative constitutional right of personhood for the unborn,” banning abortion nationwide by judicial fiat. We’ll see. The night is young. 

Meanwhile, another camp dreams more straightforwardly of a strongman rising to power. The key spokesman for this view is Urbit creator Curtis Yarvin, a computer programmer who first came to prominence in the late 2000s blogging about his extreme-right political views under the pseudonym Mencius Moldbug. Yarvin is close confident of Peter Thiel, an investor in the startup Yarvin founded to oversee the Urbit project. He’s also insinuated himself into the post-left downtown New York scene. A new magazine called the Mars Review of Books publishes on Urbit, with bylines from tech types and art-world luminaries alike. The Red Scare hosts talk breathlessly about his luscious hair. And in print he extolls the virtues of dictatorship — or “absolute monarchy,” as his Tolkienesque cosplay lingo puts it — which, in his view, is the only force that could “control the elites” who rule our society at present. 

In Yarvin’s narrative, a cohort of elites (or the “deep state,” or “The Cathedral”) operating at the highest levels of government, industry, and academia have turned America into a totally administered state. In the name of the values of egalitarianism and progressivism, the elites impose an elaborate scheme of bureaucratic rules and regulations that penetrate every area of life and censure any departure from officially sanctioned, politically correct ways of thinking, speaking, and acting. Only a dictator could bring these powerful actors to heel. In Yarvin’s authoritarian fantasies, the future monarch will, precisely by suspending democracy, allow organic tradition to flourish once again. “The Patriot King is the nation’s gardener; his goal is to make its lovely human flora burgeon and blossom.” 

Lunacy, to be sure, but lunacy that’s began to creep into the mainstream, if you have the eyes to spot it. Consider Justin E.G. Smith’s recent Harper’s cover story, which blames something he calls “the regime” for the persistence of an alleged glut of restrictive pandemic response measures. “The regime” turns out to be basically synonymous with Yarvin’s Cathedral: it’s not “any particular government or organization” but rather a hazy “global order” which has sneakily used “governmental and corporate interests” to erect “a vast apparatus of control,” aided by an array of “apps and trackers.” The consequence has been “the demise of most forms of community life outside the lens of the state and its corporate subcontractors.” Smith doesn’t endorse Yarvin’s authoritarian solution, to be clear; in fact, he doesn’t give us any sense at all how “the regime” might be resisted. For those who see a battle between a vanishing tradition, on the one hand, and an all-powerful, impervious monolith of power and bureaucracy and capital on the other, this is the characteristic choice: Caesarism or despair.  


The postliberal worldview may be “religious,” for those who identify “tradition” with the church. But it is not Biblical. In the Bible, earthly power is real but fragile. It is nothing compared to the power of God. “God chose the weak things of the cosmos in order that he might shame the mighty,” Paul tells us (1 Corinthians 1:27). In the New Testament, the mortal rulers of this world are themselves subordinate to a suite of ruling spiritual forces — Thrones, Lordships, Archons, Powers (Colossians 1:16) — who must nonetheless bow to the authority of Christ. All created hierarchies — Jew and Greek, slave and free, woman and man — are transitory. They will be overturned in the Kingdom of Heaven; they are already abolished in the body of the Living Christ (Galatians 3:28). 

This eschatological revolution is always described as a “new creation,” never as a restoration of something that once existed. Even in the Old Testament, as the great Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch observed, the God of Genesis must become the God of Exodus to fulfil his promise. Creation is incomplete at its core. Christ, then, is not the original Adam rethroned but a New Adam. In the Gospels, Jesus is unremittingly hostile to “tradition” — especially to the institution of the family and to established religion. Like all prophets, he is dishonored in his native country and in his own household (Matthew 13:57), and for good reason: he explicitly disavows kinship with his mother and brothers in favor of his disciples. “Whoever does the will of my Father in the heavens, that one is my brother and sister and mother” (Matthew 12:50). There is indeed something subterranean to the mode of resistance to power that Jesus prescribes, but the Christian community stands apart from “the world” only because it is a fundamentally new way of living. “What are you doing that is extraordinary?” Jesus challenges the disciples (Matthew 5:47). In fact, to outsiders, the form of life practiced by the disciples looks more like gluttony and drunkenness than piety (Luke 7:34). It has nothing to do with keeping an old tradition alive. 

In the New Testament, it is vital for disciples of Christ to prefigure the Kingdom of Heaven in their lives with one another; not just to defend righteousness from external encroachment, but to prepare for the imminent destruction of the present order. The concepts of hope and preparation are very closely related in both the Gospels and the Epistles. The scripture is impossible to understand without an attempt to inhabit the faith of the early Christians that the Kingdom could come quite literally any day. “You do not know what your life will be like on the morrow,” the author of James remarks portentously (4:14). “The Lord’s arrival has drawn near” and “the judge is standing before the doors” — which is why “we consider those who persevere blissful” (James 5:8-11). The attempt to embody the world to come must never cease, no matter how fruitless it appears, because hope is never lost. The Messiah is only ever a moment away. 

In the Bible, religion does not liberate. It is God who liberates by vanquishing the rich, the exploiters, the oppressors. In our own time, keeping the faith is not a substitute for politics, something to which we can turn when the odds of transformative change seem dim, but rather a method of developing the spiritual discipline to continue to participate in the familiar tasks of revolutionary mass politics, even when its success seems inconceivable. One of those tasks, it seems, must be to speak back to those Christians who advocate a separatist socialism — and to bring them back, where possible, into the fold, to fight alongside those who do not share their faith for the new world that is promised to us all. 

Postliberalism regards the present and sees nothing but the vestigial past, its traces rendered tragically faint. But the purpose of Christian faith is to give us the means to “look at the present from the perspective of the future,” as the Dominican friar and Marxist Herbert McCabe wrote in his essay “The Class Struggle and Christian Love.” Behold: now is a very acceptable time.

Erik Baker is an American historian and an associate editor at The Drift.


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