Marx wrote that history always repeats itself: first as tragedy, then as farce. As a good progressive, his conception of time was historical and dialectical. He sought to demonstrate the dramatic ruptures and contingencies of power, intellectually decalcifying them and opening spaces for a more critical approach to the present to inspire thinking about a better future. Contrasting this progressive vision of time are many competitors. There is a point about midway into Patrick Deneen’s new book Regime Change: Toward a Postliberal Future where he revisits the theme of his old essay “Progress and Memory: Making Whole Our Historical Sense.” The topic is how only a proper conservatism can unite past, present, and future without privileging one dimension of time over the other. As he put it in the initial essay, where progressives and liberals privilege the future, and reactionaries the past, the “conservative disposition…rather draws closely together the past, present and future in a concurrent continuum.”
Deneen comes back to this philosophy of time in Regime Change. He laments how the modern fixation on liberal or left progress has led to a continuous futurity where tomorrow always appears more economically prosperous, more “enlightened” by “social justice,” and graced with yet more of Harry Styles’ singles than past or present. This has led to a tremendous sense of alienation from past and present which only political conservatism can cure. “A politics of continuity weaves together past, present, and future in a relationship of mutual influence and correction,” Deneen writes. “The integration of time forefronts the importance of memory toward the past, gratitude in the present, and a keen cautiousness toward unintended consequences of an overly optimistic view toward progress.”
In The Reactionary Mind, political theorist Corey Robin observed that
… the conservative not only opposes the left; he also believes that the left has been in the driver’s seat since, depending who’s counting, the French Revolution or the Reformation. If he is to preserve what he values, the conservative must declare war against the culture as it is.
.. even when the conservative claims to be preserving a present that’s threatened or recovering a past that’s been lost, he is impelled by his own activism and agency to confess that he’s making a new beginning and creating the future.
As a consequence, the conservative
develops a particular attitude toward political time, a belief in the power of men and women to shape history, to propel it forward or backward; and by virtue of that belief, he comes to adopt the future as his preferred tense.
Robin’s analysis perfectly coincides with Deneen’s vision. What’s distinctive about Deneen’s account of political time is, despite all the thinly veiled anti-progressive modernity nostalgia, it is extraordinarily modern—which is not to say novel. The alienated reactionary wants to enact peace among past, present, and future, but finds himself unable to exist in the liberal present without sneering. Deneen vacillates between nostalgia for the pre-modern era (or at least, his imagining of it) and a radical yearning to overcome the present in order to restore it. Ultimately unable to go back to the past or reconcile with the liberal present, conservatives like Deneen demand we not conserve anything they find distasteful, and instead call for a radically illiberal social transformation—the titular “regime change.” Modeling itself on soft-authoritarian regimes like Orban’s Hungary—where Deneen paid a respectful visit—the new aristocracy will roll back the hard-won liberal rights of sexual and gender minorities. Thanks but no thanks.
Once More Against Liberalism
Pat Deneen made his name as a formidable critic of liberalism. While his earlier books focused on developing his critique of liberal modernity—a dime a dozen, if we’re being honest—Deneen’s most recent is something more ambitious. Regime Change offers a sketch of an illiberal alternative, offering meaty if not quite systematic thoughts on the culture, institutions, and economic arrangements of a post-liberal future. The book opens with a reasonably long reprise of Deneen’s critique of liberalism. But the bulk of the book takes up a defense of “common-good conservatism” and “aristopopulism,” along with practical suggestions.
Deneen’s 2005 opus Democratic Faith—still his best book—was a sharp critique of utopian liberal democratic thinkers. As he correctly pointed out, egalitarian democrats tend to hedge their demands for political reform in the language of equality and rights, but a thinly veiled perfectionist faith often lurked within the more ambitious. Deneen recommends that, rather than focusing on achieving perfection, arguments for democracy and equality should flow from a recognition of shared human weaknesses. Unfortunately since then Deneen’s critiques of liberalism and progressivism have become more broad and less cutting. His Trump-era Why Liberalism Failed became a hot commodity for arguing that liberalism had perversely failed because it had succeeded. Deneen’s history of liberalism draws a line from the scientific rationalism of Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes to such relativist hubris as thinking one might change the “reality” of sex through genetic manipulation. Bacon and Hobbes rejected the earlier Aristotelian notion that all things possess a greater teleological and sacred purpose in favor of the far more modern idea that the world was just matter in motion. This matter had no intrinsic purpose to it beyond what human beings wanted to put there, generating a subjectivist outlook where the meaning of life was simply to gratify personal hedonism. This led to the formation of the liberal ethic where individuals demanded they be given absolute freedom to live as they saw fit in order to better pursue their conception of hedonic gratification. Aligned with the metaphysical reduction of nature to matter in motion, liberal ethics also led people to destroy the environment in the endless pursuit of consumption.
On Deneen’s telling, the evolution of this thinking led to the counter-intuitive tendency to eventually demand that the state not just refrain from interfering with individual freedom. Citizens demanded the state intervene to free them from the burdens of nature and from any kind of traditionalist morality—offering services to control reproduction and sex, for example, or marginalizing religious conservatives who took issue with liberals’ libertinism. This led to the inevitable growth of what Deneen thinks is an increasingly tyrannical liberal state. Beginning with absolute freedom, liberal politics was ending in sweeping despotism, while liberals insisted there remained no solution to the problem but their own.
While Why Liberalism Failed had merits, its reach far exceeded its grasp. One of the more frustrating problems was how Deneen would reject the metaphysical arguments of liberal and progressive philosophers for non-metaphysical reasons, stressing how they led to social disintegration that could only be managed by ever-increasing power. This of course said nothing about the truth or not of their metaphysical claims; it only addressed what Deneen took to be their negative consequences. One doesn’t refute naturalist materialism by saying it is bad, but by proving it is false. As Leo Strauss put it in Natural Right and History,
…a wish is not a fact. Even by proving that a certain view is indispensable for living well, one proves merely that the view in question is a salutary myth: one does not prove it to be true. Utility and truth are two entirely different things.
Unmasking Progressive Liberalism
Things have gotten better in some respects in Regime Change. Deneen makes some familiar arguments for conservative epistemology and traditionalism. But in most respects they’ve gotten considerably worse. Nowhere is this clearer than in how deeply unfair Deneen is when reading many liberal and progressive philosophers, a very far cry from the comparatively careful analysis of Democratic Faith. Probably the most transparent example is Deneen’s treatment of J. S. Mill, the quintessential “progressive” liberal if ever there was one, and effectively the comic book archvillain of Regime Change. In Deneen’s telling Mill was in fact a rabidly elitist technocrat who wanted a “society led by a small minority of creative non-conformists” who may have “recognized that ‘the many should be accorded political voice and representation” but nonetheless “sought to limit their influence” especially if they “constituted a potentially conservative obstacle to progress.” Deneen also tries to suggest Mill offered “arguments on behalf of slavery” since the latter described its historical role in “giving a commencement to industrial life.” Needless to say Deneen offers a hugely skewed reading of the proud liberal socialist Mill. One can certainly criticize Mill for his endorsement of British colonialism and his elitist endorsement of plural voting for the more educated. But this has to be presented in the proper context. In the 19th century Mill was one of the very few major thinkers to call for universal suffrage. And unlike other radicals, he really meant all since Mill was also one of the first to call for the enfranchisement of women. This is worth considering, since Deneen elsewhere describes conservatism as an effort to protect ordinary people against liberal elite manipulation. This certainly wasn’t true of the right in Mill’s era. James Fitzjames Steven wrote a book length critique of Mill arguing against universal enfranchisement, equality for women, and arguing that “to obey a real superior…is one of the most important of all virtues.” More on that in a second. Millsian liberal socialism has many problems with it. But a system in which workers manage their firms and all citizens, regardless of gender or belief, enjoy a robust welfare state and rights to political participation would be far less elitist than the conservative alternative. It would also demonstrate a far deeper commitment to caring for the least well off.
One Man’s Great Tradition is Another’s Ruling Hegemony
This leads me to the more important point. After discussing liberalism and progressivism for the first third of the book, Deneen moves onto his defense of “common-good conservatism.” This includes a lengthy apologia for the conservative tradition as a whole, which in effect describes it as an aristocratic defense of the common people against the tyrannical ambitions of liberal and progressives intellectuals. In extreme inversion of Deneen’s angry polemics against liberal philosophy, he treats conservative thinking with the most velvet of gloves. Deneen is allergic to, and even seems embarrassed by, the “dominant narrative among left-intellectuals…that conservatism is the ideology of the elite aligned with those who seek to preserve the wealth, status, and power of the upper classes against the egalitarian longings of the people.” By contrast Deneen rather clunkily insists that early conservatism was not an
obtuse, reactionary call to defend the existing elite or a call to oppress the people, but a recognition that a self-consciously conservative elite was needed to protect the people against the destabilizing threat of a new economically oligarchic and socially revolutionary class, precisely by defending ordinary people against the destabilizing ambitions of progressivism…
The idea that conservatism was borne out of a populist concern for protecting the lower orders from dangerous progressive authoritarians would likely have surprised Edmund “the Swinish Multitude” Burke, Joseph “All grandeur, all power, and all subordination to authority rests on the executioner” de Maistre, and pretty much every other formative conservative thinker. In Reflections on the Revolution in France Burke scornfully rejects the “conquering empire of light and reason” which stripped away “all the pleasing illusions which made power gentle and obedience liberal.” Burke lamented that to liberals and progressives a “king is but a man” and so entitled to no more reverence than anyone else. Burke also emphatically denied that the lower orders were entitled to rights to political participation, declaring that
as to the share of power, authority, and direction which each individual ought to have in the management of the state, that I must deny to be amongst the direct original rights of man in civil society.
To the extent Burke was at all interested in freedom from tyranny, it was a subordinated freedom where the lower orders knew their place. Burke lamented that the age of aristocratic chivalry was gone and that the age of the
sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever. Never, never more shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom…
These contemptuous denunciations of democracy and citizenship for engendering intensely disruptive passions become all the more amusing when one thinks of how often Burke tried to rhetorically couple aesthetically conflicting appeals to sublime bombast with a gritty political realism. And yet most of the aristocratic features he insisted were central to a well-functioning society were swept away within a few decades of his passing, and all but the most reactionary don’t miss them.
Joseph de Maistre, the other founding figure of the intellectual political right, was equally appalled by the spread of democratic sentiments. In Considerations on France, the most De Maistre was willing to grant to ordinary citizens is that they can aspire to the prospect of subordination to the king since “monarchy is without contradiction, the form of government that gives the most distinction to the greatest number of persons.” This is because ordinary people can participate in its splendor “as a portion of sovereignty” without thereby obtaining genuine powers of decision. In his Essay on the Generative Principle of Political Constitutions De Maistre reiterates this point, stressing that it is not for the ordinary people to found a state or organize laws for themselves. This is because
Lawgivers, strictly speaking, are extraordinary men, belonging perhaps only to the ancient world and to the youth of nations. When providence has decreed the more rapid formation of a political constitution, there appears a man clothed with an indefinable power; he speaks, and he makes himself to be obeyed. These lawgivers par excellence possess one distinctive characteristic: they are kings, or eminently noble; on this point, there is and can be no exception.
Not to be outdone, in the United States various American conservatives expressed similarly anti-democratic and elitist sentiments. Reflecting on the prospect of extending suffrage, John Adams—a favorite of Russell Kirk’s—vigorously cautioned against it. This was because if one expanded voting opportunities there would be
no End of it. New Claims will arise. Women will demand a Vote. Lads from 12 to 21 will think their Rights not enough attended to, and every Man, who has not a Farthing, will demand an equal Voice with any other in all Acts of State. It tends to confound and destroy all Distinctions, and prostrate all Ranks, to one common Levell.
As these comments from premier right-wing intellectuals make clear, early conservatism was borne out of a deep anxiety that the revolutionary epoch was dissolving the ideology of “hierarchical complementarity” discussed by Charles Taylor in Modern Social Imaginaries. For all its populist appeals, contemporary post-liberalism’s explicit endorsement of a ruling aristocracy buttressed by a compliant mass remains very clearly in this tradition. For this reason it is worth exploring in some more detail. Pre-modern conceptions of nature and society were rigidly hierarchical, as Don Herzog points out in his Poisoning the Minds of the Lower Orders, often conceiving both nature and society as akin to a great chain. Each ring of the chain from low to high had its role, but that by no means allowed everyone to enjoy an equal dignity with one another. Early conservatives steadfastly rejected the emancipation and empowerment of the lower orders, and chastised the Enlightenment radicalism which insisted the lower orders were entitled to either. One of the great dangers posed by proto-liberal and liberal thinkers like Hobbes and Locke was their insistence that by nature all human beings were initially equal; either in their capacities or morally in terms of their initial rights. They also conceived of human society along the lines of a voluntary artificial compact made to service the needs of all. Society was beneficial to the extent it provided order and established the conditions of human flourishing. But it was by no means the case that human social structures or hierarchies were immutably set by nature or God. This of course meant that existent social hierarchies could be disputed and reformed, problematizing Deneen’s claim that the “practices, institutions, and traditions that gained favor due to experience over time” necessarily constitute the “general bank of a nation” storing the “total sum of practical and experiential capital of a people over time.”
Conservative Naturalization and Sublimation
Conservatives have adopted many different theoretical and rhetorical strategies to justify their assault on the tide of egalitarian modernity. Two of the most important include what I’ve called naturalization and sublimation in my book The Political Right and Modernity. Naturalization holds that the conservative’s preferred forms of hierarchical organization are natural and immutable. Conservatives usually attempt to naturalize social hierarchies where they want to present themselves as snub-nosed realists pricking the excessively utopian aspirations of progressive activists. Jordan Peterson’s famous appeal to the lobster as a proof of the inexorability of natural hierarchy is a good example, as is James Fitzjames Stevens’ rejection of Millsian feminism on the basis that women were evidently the mentally and physically weaker sex. Sublimation occurs when conservatives suggest that their preferred forms of social hierarchy conforms to some deeper reality; what Russell Kirk mystically called a “transcendent moral order.” Burke himself insisted on this in Reflections on the Revolution in France when he claimed, “Such sublime principles ought to be infused into persons of exalted situations, and religious establishments provided that may continually revive and enforce them…whenever man is put over men, as the better nature ought ever to preside, in that case more particularly, he should as nearly as possible be approximated to his perfection.” This itself reflects the aristocratic origins of conservatism, as observed—and espoused—by famous frenemy of liberalism Alexis De Tocqueville:
In aristocratic society, the class which gives the tone to opinion, and has the supreme guidance of affairs, being permanently and hereditarily placed above the multitude, naturally conceives a lofty idea of itself and of man… In aristocratic ages vast ideas are commonly entertained of the dignity, the power, and the greatness of man. These opinions exert their influence on those who cultivate the sciences, as well as on the rest of the community. They facilitate the natural impulse of the mind to the highest regions of thought, and they naturally prepare it to conceive a sublime—nay, almost a divine—love of truth.
You see both techniques at work in many parts of Regime Change defending common-good conservatism and its antecedents. Deneen will lean into naturalization when defending “traditionalist norms” against the “pervasive ethos of sexual liberation” which rejects heteronormative assumptions about sex roles. On the other hand he will lean into sublimation when describing how his new mixed regime will transform the human relationship to time, or the characterization of a particular reading of cultural tradition as the “wisdom of the people”—the “ongoing and living treasure that it at once authoritative yet profoundly egalitarian and democratic.” Except of course, the accumulated wisdom of the people doesn’t include most anything learned from the centuries old liberal tradition itself or the more muscular forms of progressivism and critical theory. In this respect Deneenian cultural traditions aren’t particularly egalitarian or democratic since they reject many of the insights coming from those groups most dedicated to equality and democracy-whether racialized or queer. Indeed this has long been a far deeper problem for many conservatives than has been acknowledged. An interesting feature of Western reactionary thought is how it yearns to consecrate authority, especially the authority of the “West.” But since the critique of doxa, ideology, and hegemony are longstanding parts of Western thinking it means rejecting key—even formative—elements of the very tradition conservatives insist should be taken as authoritative.
Another important trope conservatives frequently deploy is to invert the causality of progressive arguments, and locate the cause of discontent not in the deficient institutions and practices criticized by radicals but instead in the practice of progressive criticism itself. Deneen is better in this respect than most of his peers, and he is willing to at least nod respectfully towards the critique of political economy offered by Marx, tip his hat to the arguments of some critical race theorists, and acknowledge the legitimate concerns of progressive radicals so long as they aren’t liberal. But even Deneen will still lean into this trope. As when he accuses “critical race theory” and “intersectionality” of enacting a “separation: white from black, men from women, non-heterosexuals from heterosexuals, Christians from non-Christians.”
This badly confuses what critical theorists are trying to describe for the theory they are advancing. For instance a basic point of many critical race theorists is that “race” isn’t a natural part of the world. It has to be constructed through the ideological and legal interpellations backed by power. Exposing that requires showing how the “separation” between white and black was conceived and implemented, along with examining its lasting effects. By criticizing the theory meant to help us overcome racism for the separations enacted by racist systems themselves, Deneen blunts or even inverts critical theory’s impact, which in the long run is likely to ensure we never actually overcome the problems that lead to social separation.
In short, social discontent doesn’t emerge because of the institutional failures progressives criticize. It emerges because progressives are criticizing. The effect is to divert attention from the substance of progressive arguments to those arguments themselves. This is one of the reasons Marxists often described reactionary thinking as idealist, focusing as it often does on culture and the nefarious influence of left intellectuals rather than concrete forms of domination and material inequality.
What Would Our Post-Liberal Future Look Like?
The final sections of Regime Change sketches an alternative for a postliberal future in more specific detail, focused on defending a kind of “aristopopulism” and a “mixed constitution.” This mixed constitution would entrench the power of a new post-liberal aristocracy backed by an unexplained populist base, replacing the present regime—a de facto neoliberal one. Deneen insists such a transition is necessary to push back against liberal elites, who have established a faux meritocratic society where the successful are made to feel solely responsible for their success and the poor are compelled to internalize guilt for their own poverty. He points out how the various right-populist movements which have emerged in response to these neoliberal conditions express a yearning for a world better than what liberalism has offered.
And in some respects Deneen is right. It is certainly the case that, since at least the 1970s, neoliberals have talked a big game about freedom and equality while advancing meritocratic mythologies that screen deepening inequality. Deneen is also right to draw our attention to the destruction of local communities, long the primary site of meaning for the “somewheres” rather than the “anywheres” of the world. In fact I would double down on his argument and stress how globalizing forms of neoliberalism have wrecked everything from indigenous communities in the south to rust belt towns in the north. Margaret Thatcher once declared that “individuals must look to themselves” and expect little from their fellow citizens (unless of course they’re rich enough to demand it). We are still living with the toxic consequences of this philosophy, militantly advanced by Reagan, Thatcher, and a host of other war criminals. It is long past time we reject the nihilistic insistence that there is no alternative and look for something better. Though it is wrong to assume a purely local politics would be sufficient; as an unprecedentedly global system, neoliberal capitalism requires a cosmopolitan response. Indeed the lack of attention to political economy in Regime Change is a major weakness and demonstrative of where reactionary critics of neoliberalism have always fallen well short of Marxists in systematic critique.
Unfortunately, I don’t think Deneen’s “mixed constitution” of aristopopulism would be much of an improvement. In fact it would almost certainly be far worse. There are several problems with it.
First, Deneen is very clear that his major problem isn’t with the persistence of elite rule. Instead it is with liberal or neoliberal elite rule, since they try to “veil their status—even and especially to themselves—through efforts to root out privilege, engaging in a stupendous effort of self-deception about the nature of their position.” Correct as this is, Deneen’s solution is instead to establish an elite that no longer looks at the term elite as an inherently “bad word.” Instead we need a self-conscious aristocracy, the development of a “ruling class” that adopts the ethos of common-good conservatism. In a word, we get the new boss, same as the old boss but now requiring us to sing Latin homilies.
Deneen insists a conservative ruling class would show deeper concern for the “people” than the current liberal one. But he gives us very little reason to believe that. To start there is a transparent irony in calling for the emergence of a ruling class comfortable with the role on behalf of the “people.” At least liberal elites take some efforts to “root out privilege” because of its ideological inconsistencies with liberalism. Secondly, Deneen is wrong to imply that there is some hidden majority of Americans hungering for more social conservatism. If anything American society has become more liberal over time and not less: majorities support rights to abortion and gay marriage while opposing anti-trans bills. This trend looks to be deepening over time: Millennials in the United States and United Kingdom are set to be the rare generation that doesn’t become more conservative over time, and Gen Z is so far emphatically liberal. Indeed, Deneen’s book echoes a longstanding and increasingly funny trend amongst post-liberals of asserting a widespread popular basis of their positions that is breathtaking in a country where Democrats have won the popular vote for President in seven of the last eight elections.
Thirdly, and most important, I’d argue that rather than replace neoliberal elites with conservative elites, echoing authoritarian Hungary, we should be working to make our society more authentically democratic. In other words the solution to elitism is less elitism. What is interesting about Deneen’s conservative paternalism is how his new aristocracy speaks in the name of the people, but he pays comparatively little attention to procedures which might actually increase their direct involvement in politics, let alone the economy. Proposals to increase the number of congressional districts and raising the number of representatives in the House might be an improvement, but at most a modest one that still focuses on reforming the auspicious heights of power. Why not condemn the trend in GOP-controlled states of rolling back voting rights by demanding an expansion of protections for citizens’ most basic political rights, or recommending direct democratic procedures like Denmark’s citizenship initiative? Or experimenting with the deliberative democratic mechanisms deployed in Scotland? Or be even more ambitious in corroding plutocratic rule by taking a page from the devilish J. S. Mill and recommending an end to capitalist control of the economy through the establishment of workplace democracy and worker-owned firms?
This leads me to by far the most frustrating thing about Deneen’s book, which is its lack of economic imagination. To be clear, Deneen deserves credit from leftists for taking economic inequality and deprivation seriously in the abstract. Unlike virtually all his peers, Deneen treats Marx generously and even approves the Marxist observation that capitalism has disrupted many traditional communities and value systems. At various points Deneen complements his call for right-wing social policies with recommendations for adopting left-wing economics. Some of this seems purely motivated by the strategic sense that a coalition of social conservatives and economic leftists would be a winning one. But Deneen does seem sincerely interested in at least broaching the topic of economic reform to the right.
The problem is, I’m not exactly sure what is particularly “left” about Deneen’s economic proposals. In fact most of the time Deneen sounds strikingly “right” on economic issues-and not just because his major problem with corporations is that too many of them are woke. When discussing the “redistribution of wealth” proposed by a “populism of the left,” he argues,
such efforts have proved evanescent to the end of shaping a very different ruling ethos. More often than not, such efforts have led to extensive damage to the broader economic order while leaving in place the institutions and attitudes that divide the elite from the people. What is needed, rather, is not an economics that purportedly seeks the equalization of outcome through the actual or effective elimination of private property…
So just like we have an anti-elitism that ends in calls for a new aristocratic elite, we have an anti-capitalism that doesn’t actually want wealth redistribution! Instead Deneen suggests we work to achieve a “national distribution of productive work, expectation of a family-supportive wage for at least one member, and the redistribution of social capital.” Not actual capital, mind, but a vaguely defined kind of socio-cultural capital or “social power” which is today concentrated only in the hands of the elite liberal class and allows them to advance their cultural agenda. I suppose social capital will allow blue collar workers to stick it to woke companies in between being told when they can go to the bathroom.
What’s striking about this is how Deneen’s “left-wing economics” doesn’t even rise to the level of the most moderate social democracy, let alone anything as ambitious as Bernie Sander’s. There are no calls for universal healthcare, for the establishment of fully paid post-secondary education (in fact university education could be “substantially reduced” and emphasis placed on “education in trades), mass public housing, welfarist initiatives that don’t have the very clear goal of heterosexual family formation, or any other policies which would bring the United States just into line with a very middling European welfare state. Nor is there any serious attention paid to rejuvenating the labor movement—itself a source of the kind of solidaristic bonds Deneen wants to see restored—or seriously ending relations of economic domination. At best we get two throwaway lines on experimenting with the German co-determination model and an acknowledgment that strengthening labor unions would be a “worthy undertaking.” Compared to the pages long ruminations on reintroducing a “service requirement” in what is already the world’s largest and most expensive military and it becomes clear where Deneen’s interest is. However, the lower orders will get the satisfaction of knowing that their new ruling class took a shop class in university to get a feel for what it’s like to work with their hands. No doubt this will change everything.
With the passing of Roger Scruton it should be said Deneen is probably the greatest living Anglo-conservative philosopher. Regime Change will attract a lot of attention. He deserves commendation for writing an ambitious and readable book while extending a few olive branches towards the non-liberal left. But in the end there isn’t anything to recommend about the more transparently autocratic and aristocratic postliberal future offered. Workers will have to submit to a new aristocracy mouthing half-remembered Burkean bromides in place of one mouthing quarter-remembered Hayekian platitudes. This will be done in the name of a decreasing minority of once-hegemonic elite conservatives eager to recover the “social capital” they lost to liberalism. In return workers will effectively get a return to the economics of the Eisenhower administration—a period where, as one might recall, the United States famously set up the world’s most deficient welfare state. While claiming to heal the divide between past, present, and future, post-liberal aristo-populism and common good conservatism are a regression to an aristocratic past which doesn’t deserve any shot at the future.
Matt McManus is a Lecturer at the University of Michigan and the author of The Political Right and Equality (Routledge) amongst other books.