Nature and imagination are twins, argued the great thinkers of classical liberalism.
The modern liberal project has fallen on hard times. Amidst the hotly debated questions of how we got here and what is to be done, many writers are proposing radical departures from the old consensus. Some of these are not wholesale rejections of liberalism but are still uncompromising in their turn away from thoroughly market-driven economics (Elizabeth Bruenig and Richard Spady spring to mind). Others, like Patrick Deneen and D.C. Schindler offer radical critiques of liberalism. What sets Deneen and Schindler apart from other writers is their contention that liberalism has not just failed to sustain a healthy politics, but that this breakdown is the result of tendencies at the heart of liberalism.
It’s worth considering how thinkers like Deneen and Schindler move from critique to prescription. Each argues, in his own distinct way, that the inner logic of liberalism is self-undermining: Deneen tells the story of the Hobbesian secret at the heart of modern American life; Schindler takes John Locke as his paradigm of the “diabolical” self-contradictions that plague the liberal mind. Both attempt to show that the foundations of the liberal constitutional order were rickety from the beginning, and that this sense of unease we are now experiencing is a direct result of some of our deepest, and often unconscious, commitments to unbridled freedom.
As others have ably pointed out, there are some “ifs” in this that need to hold true for these criticisms of liberalism to fully hit their mark. If liberalism is a kind of coherent, active force in the world without reasonably separable traditions following different logics, if there is no space for religion or the laws of nature as a grounding for liberal intuitions, and if lived politics and economics carry far less causal importance than ideas, then yes, we have reason to conclude that the foundations of liberalism are more than tottering—they have already crumbled to dust. Instead of criticizing their approach to understanding liberalism itself, my goal here has to do with working out the consequences of accepting their arguments as true.
It probably shouldn’t fall to philosophers to offer suggestions for recovery or reform outside the realm of ideas, and to their credit, neither really strays into public policy. Schindler tells us that a restorative response “can only, finally, come from a rekindling of the embers of love for the actual good, embers that can never altogether die out.” Deneen points the reader, in a general way, toward “practices fostered in local settings, focused on the creation of new and viable cultures, economics grounded in virtuosity within households, and the creation of civic polis life.”
But here’s the problem: In arguing that liberalism is a bankrupt political philosophy, and placing hope in reintegrating man’s spiritual life into his politics, Deneen, Schindler, and others in this vein may be hastening citizens toward a disaster not unlike that foreseen for the liberalism they decry.
Consider what Deneen and Schindler rightly think would be good places to start a recovery: the creation or restoration of spaces for the love of truth, goodness, and beauty. Deneen’s passages about this evoke a sense of small scale and community, restraints on what would constitute acceptable economic activity, and an overriding concern with liberty as avoiding arbitrariness, “not only of a king but of an employer.” Schindler, for his part, offers a metaphysical account of where we might go next, one centered on his reading of Aristotle and Plato. The future we should build would cherish a freedom “rooted in a pattern of life that has its center in the truth of reality, a truth that gets amplified through the generative diversity of analogy, through relations and activities that reflect gratitude in their basic form.”
What differentiates previous generations of cultural critics from the most recent one is not their desire to foster these changes; it is the fact that they see them as only possible after a divorce from liberal politics, and that they see their preferred society as totally incompatible with liberal culture. How curious, then, that the way Schindler and Deneen depict the politics they want seems to depend on the existence of liberalism—or at least a concept of toleration that Deneen gives short shrift to and Schindler almost totally ignores. Hoping for an old-yet-new kind of political regime oriented around the model of the classical polis or the anti-federalists, both authors neglect to address some of the more problematic truths that stand in their way. But in this hope for a new regime, a new kind of politics, I wonder if they aren’t really asking for something much older, and much less conducive to the pursuit of truth, beauty, and goodness than they expect.
One might be tempted to say that their desire for a viable alternative to liberalism requires that the Christian religion regain an authoritative role in public life. Neither thinker says this explicitly. With Schindler in particular, no other public philosophy besides one inspired by this faith will suffice, and no other worldview allows us (hypothetically) to unite around a common moral life.
In evaluating Deneen’s arguments, Adrian Vermeule’s “Integration from Within” chides him for eschewing “any competing comprehensive theory” with which to replace liberalism, and for being unwilling to think pragmatically about what it might take to accomplish his goals. One could easily imagine Vermeule writing a similar critique of Schindler. Vermeule happily paints a picture of dedicated religious believers (presumably Catholics) working to make the administrative state their own. They would act without “hint of retreat into localism,” and instead with “a determination to co-opt and transform the decaying regime from within its own core.” Vermeule insists we needn’t concern ourselves with the degree to which this would require coercion, since what matters is “finding a strategic position from which to sear the liberal faith with hot irons.”
One challenge with this “hot iron” plan is that it isn’t at all clear that previous examples of fully “integral” societies actually succeed in the large-scale. Beyond the convent, the monastery, or the Hutterite commune, attempts to craft a widely-accepted sort of social and moral unity (which is to say, conformity) all seem to stifle the authentic desire to seek truth, and instead fall prey to the worst parts of human nature.
As a tactical matter, if Christians followed Vermeule’s advice—to infiltrate the administrative state and turn its power against the cultural Left—and somehow succeeded in crafting “an altogether new order,” perhaps there would be institutional space for the church to flourish. Or perhaps there wouldn’t. Vermeule justifies his ruthlessness in the name of the City of God, writing that Catholics can’t afford to be nostalgic toward politics—that they “can ultimately have no attachment to man’s places.” Whether this is compatible with seeking the welfare of the city is an open question (consider Jeremiah 29:7). I have the strong suspicion, however, that one doesn’t succeed in reestablishing a culture open to the possibility of truth through Schmittian politics-as-war.
Schindler and Deneen avoid spelling out the practical consequences of rejecting liberalism writ large. But this needs to be done. I wonder: Does the post-liberal future they hope to create necessarily become “more itself” (to borrow Deneen’s phrase) in Vermeule’s integral state? This isn’t an idle question. Vermeule is clear-eyed that fostering the return of an integralist Christian political theology would entail the reunion of throne and altar and all the violence that would flow from it. (His willingness to defend Pius IX’s decision in the Mortara case tells us plenty about that.) But then again, he’s always been consistent in his defense of decisionism as the way out of our predicament.
Perhaps the best alternative to the deranged modern liberalism Deneen, Schindler, and Vermeule critique lies in a regime that tolerates a wide range of theological difference and offers fundamental protections for liberty. The fact that many today on the Left hope to compel conformity to their utilitarian and identitarian projects does not mean that an equal, opposite reaction from the Right will produce a better outcome. Flawed as it is, some variation of the liberal-constitutional republic provides the best hope for this today, because, just like democracy in Plato’s Republic, it might be the only place that opens room for considering the possibility of truth without commanding conformity.
Of course, in Plato, this is because almost nobody in democracy really cares about the truth of things, and yet, at the same time, such a regime opens up the space for the small number who do. But that might be a good reminder, too: Christians were never promised a kingdom here and now, and anyone who tries to recreate one is doomed to the loss not just of their polity, but probably also of their church.