Among the Post-Liberals

Among the Post-Liberals

No one has the stomach to burn out the tongues of blasphemers anymore, even if some remain too ornery to admit it. Perhaps breaking free of liberalism is harder than it looks.

Patrick Deneen (center) meets with Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán (left) in November 2019. (MTI/Miniszterelnöki Sajtóiroda/Fischer Zoltán)

Why Liberalism Failed
by Patrick J. Deneen
Yale University Press, 2018, 248 pp.

The Theology of Liberalism: Political Philosophy and the Justice of God
by Eric Nelson
Harvard University Press, 2019, 232 pp.

Before Church and State: A Study of Social Order in the Sacramental Kingdom of St. Louis IX
by Andrew Willard Jones
Emmaus Academic, 2017, 510 pp.

 

Few can agree what liberalism is, but everyone can agree that it’s on the rocks. A thousand think pieces have made the litany familiar: Trump, China, Brexit, Orbán, add whatever terms appear on your particular bingo card. Rival cottage industries pit liberal critics of “populism” against left and right critics of “liberalism.” These warring camps share a sense of liberalism’s evident decline.

The term itself is notoriously slippery. Originating in the nineteenth century, it is sometimes projected back two or more centuries earlier. Frequently linked to two other terms, democracy and capitalism, its precise relationship with them is nonetheless not obvious; liberals have not always been democrats and probably need not be capitalists. Liberalism can equally refer to a set of political principles (freedom and equality, for instance, or individual rights) or to a certain political style (conciliatory and consensus-driven, or gradualist and anti-utopian). There may be a broad affinity between the principles and the style, but they don’t always go together. The Jacobins used radical means in pursuit of what often look like liberal ends. Likewise, every society has contained consensus-seekers, but it would be odd to describe moderate Spartans or Aztecs as liberals absent any commitment to recognizably liberal principles.

Recent debates have tended to confuse rather than clarify matters. In left-of-center discourse, “liberalism” and “leftism” are often invoked as respective shorthand for neoliberalism and social democracy. Neither of these positions sits outside the boundaries of liberalism, broadly construed, and most of the positions currently marked as leftist have been supported in other times and places by those we’d describe as liberals. Still, even if this confrontation doesn’t signal a verdict on liberalism tout court, it does at least provide clear battle lines in a conflict with real stakes.

On the right, things are more of a mess. Many conservatives in the United States still portray themselves as the true liberals, heirs to a tradition that was hijacked by progressives, but a growing number have cast themselves in opposition to liberalism as such, perhaps even back through the American founding. For now, however, this trend remains more an impulse and a branding strategy than a coherent philosophy. One obvious reason is that critiques of liberalism on the right have coalesced around the figure of Donald Trump. The result has been a tendency to subordinate ideological coherence to the leader’s shifting whims, a preference for trolling over substance, and an intellectual environment that offers fertile soil for charlatans, grifters, and cranks.

But this incoherence isn’t due entirely to Trump, who reflects the movement that brought him to power more than vice versa. A common narrative, fostered recently by self-proclaimed “national conservatives” and “post-liberals,” claims that pre-Trump conservatives were entirely wedded to small-government classical liberalism, thereby scapegoating libertarians for the sins of the broader movement. Yet American conservatism has always combined libertarian tendencies with statist and ethno-nationalist ones, and the leading Trumpist partisans have been adept at oscillating between these registers. Nor, for that matter, has the alleged shift away from libertarianism resulted in a visibly less plutocratic economic program. Alarmism about “woke capital” has rarely extended to non-woke capital; corporations are in the clear so long as they refrain from tweeting out Pride celebrations and focus on brutalizing their workers.

Nonetheless, there are careers to be made in the post-liberal moment. The formerly neoconservative journalist Sohrab Ahmari underwent well-publicized conversions to Catholicism and Trumpism in rapid succession, then shot to fame by picking a fight with the prominent anti-Trump conservative David French. His memorable call “to fight the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good” was representative, at least in its incongruous mixture of pious moralism and macho bluster. (“Enjoying the spoils” isn’t a phrase that figures prominently in the Gospels.) The freshman senator Josh Hawley, a banker’s son who had heretofore spent his entire life grasping for every meritocratic brass ring placed in front of him, rebranded himself as a scourge of “cosmopolitan elites” and won positive press for his ostensible departures from laissez-faire orthodoxy. Conveniently, this did not require any sharp break with the standard program of cutting taxes for the rich and gutting benefits for the poor. Instead, it mainly involved a crusade against Big Tech—a well-chosen target, safely located Over There in blue America, fronted by callow millennials with names like Zuckerberg.

The journal most identified with these trends is First Things, founded in 1990 as an intellectual forum for the religious (and chiefly Catholic) right. Under its late founder Richard John Neuhaus, the journal had hewed close to the postwar fusionist consensus (socially conservative but also hawkish and pro-market); this year, by contrast, it hosted an open letter warning against any attempt to revive “the failed conservative consensus that preceded Trump.” At times, the magazine under current editor R. R. Reno has offered a genuine rethinking of old pieties. More often, a cynic might detect an underlying continuity of mission: to produce an intellectually and theologically respectable pedigree for the Republican program du jour, whether Reaganite or Trumpist. Aquinas can be conscripted in support of trade wars and Muslim bans as easily as he once was in support of supply-side economics and the Iraq invasion.

Is there any there, there? Can we detect any lasting substance in the post-liberal moment on the right, or is it a more ephemeral product of the aftermath of 2016? Several recent books have sought to put some intellectual meat on the bones of these debates, turning to history to make sense of liberalism and the alternatives to it. Together they point to some of liberalism’s perplexities—but equally to the difficulty of getting out from under its shadow.

 

The most prominent entry in the genre is Patrick J. Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, which became a surprise hit upon its 2018 publication (it was blurbed by none other than Barack Obama). Deneen, a Notre Dame political theorist, might broadly be described as a Catholic communitarian, which puts him at a useful remove from the more party-line Trump-era conservatives. His localist inclinations make him lukewarm about nationalism—although perhaps not lukewarm enough, as evidenced by his recent photo op with Orbán—and he is relatively open to environmentalism and to critiques of capitalism. The conflict between conservative liberals and conservative anti-liberals often seems to pit worshippers of the market against worshippers of the state, but Deneen casts both state and market as linked manifestations of liberalism’s pathologies.

The apparent timeliness of Deneen’s book no doubt explains much of its success, but his basic narrative will be familiar to readers of older (and frankly better) works like Leo Strauss’s Natural Right and History (1953) or Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue (1981). This is a story of modernity rupturing a more cohesive moral and intellectual universe. Under “classical and Christian thought and practice,” Deneen suggests, liberty was conceived as a form of self-rule requiring self-limitation, individuals were understood as parts of larger relational wholes, and humanity itself was continuous with nature. It was the philosophers who unmade this universe: “The foundations of liberalism were laid by a series of thinkers”—Bacon and Descartes, Hobbes and Locke—“whose central aim was to disassemble what they concluded were irrational religious and social norms.” The result was a conception of liberty as unfettered choice, of individuals as separate and prior to larger communities, and of humanity confronting nature as a hostile conqueror. Such assumptions remain common to both “first-wave” classical liberals on the right and “second-wave” progressive liberals on the left. But the evident consequences—social atomization, cultural collapse, environmental crisis, and the jointly increasing power of state and market—make clear that “liberalism’s end game is unsustainable in every respect.” It is a victim not of incomplete implementation but of its own success.

This is, as noted, a familiar story. Yet Deneen’s choice of “liberalism” as his object of analysis merits some comment, for this choice was not self-evident to all of his predecessors. His arguments about social atomization leading to statism, for instance, recall Tocqueville’s, who formulated them about “democracy.” The arguments about modernity’s depletion of the premodern cultural reservoirs on which it depends recall Schumpeter’s, who formulated them about “capitalism.”

Are these merely semantic differences? Perhaps not, for our object of analysis reflects our understanding of how the changes in question actually occur. Tocqueville understood democracy, and Schumpeter understood capitalism, as mass social formations demanding large-scale historical explanations. For Deneen, by contrast, liberalism is initially a set of ideas, the project of a few early modern philosophers, which goes on to take over the world. The old premodern values were “philosophically undermined,” he writes, which “led, in turn, to these goods being undermined in reality,” without any hint of the mechanism by which the philosophy of Descartes or Hobbes came to determine the everyday lives of billions.

Putting such weight on the philosophers increases the stakes of interpreting them correctly, and Deneen is not always careful in this regard. If, for instance, John Locke should be viewed as “the first philosopher of liberalism,” then presumably it matters that Locke was not actually a secular champion of unrestrained individual choice, instead insisting that human freedom is bounded by a “law of nature” rooted in our being “all the workmanship of one omnipotent and infinitely wise maker.” Insisting on secular philosophy as the driving force of modernity also leads to some striking omissions. Figures like Luther and Calvin do not appear in the book, although if any thinkers might be thought to have radically reshaped modern consciousness, they would have a far stronger case than Hobbes or Locke. To include them, however, would raise broader questions about Protestantism’s role in fostering individualism, which would undermine the contrast between a uniform “classical and Christian” premodernity and liberal modernity.

In fact, although Deneen is well-known as a Catholic public intellectual, religion is notably absent from his book. No doubt this reflects a desire to make the case against liberalism on terms that can convince a variety of readers. But his unwillingness to stake out a more determinate position of his own—like the proudly reactionary Catholics (Joseph de Maistre, Louis de Bonald, Carl Schmitt) who have served as liberalism’s fiercest enemies since the French Revolution—blunts his critique. As he seems to acknowledge, the figure whom he echoes most closely in both his diagnoses and his remedies is Tocqueville—who was, in most understandings of the term, not just a liberal but a canonical one. Likewise, the communitarian critique of individualism that Deneen recapitulates is probably best understood as a particular strand of liberalism rather than an alternative to it.

Deneen is not de Maistre, for better and—well, mostly just for better. He doesn’t hope to undo modernity and doesn’t deny liberalism any historical achievements. Still, he sees these achievements as essentially ones of implementation: the classical and Christian past also upheld “ideals of liberty, equality, and justice,” but with a “vast disconnect” between these ideals and its inegalitarian practices. Liberalism, even as it distorted these inherited ideals, nonetheless ensured their wider proliferation, demonstrating “the profound success of the West’s most fundamental philosophical commitments.” Yet we might wonder whether this vindication of the West’s deepest commitments is bought at the price of tacitly liberalizing the premodern past. Was it always the case that its injustices were a matter of hypocrisy, of egalitarian ideals going unrealized? Or might it be possible that such ideals weren’t widely held at all—that universal equality here on earth, for instance, just wasn’t a value that many people before liberalism aimed to realize?

If the goal is simply to renounce something called “liberalism,” it’s easy enough to cobble together a definition that will identify it with the things we dislike and not those we want to keep. Thus we can jettison Locke, individualism, and contractarianism, while holding onto Tocqueville, equality, and democracy. But if such a procedure seems arbitrary, and if we suspect that liberalism’s merits and demerits are more messily intertwined, then Deneen’s position might look a bit evasive, less an anti-liberalism than a crypto-liberalism.

 

Perhaps liberalism is not godless but rather heretical. That, at least, is the theme of a recent intervention by Josh Hawley assailing America’s current “Pelagian public philosophy.” The reference is to Pelagius, the theologian whose optimistic vision of humans’ capacity to win salvation by their own merits came under sharp attack by Augustine in the fifth century. We need not linger on the specific indictment offered by Hawley, who often combines a predilection for fancy words with a somewhat shaky command of them. (Hawley was previously leveling similar charges against “Epicurean liberalism”—attributed, curiously, to that least Epicurean of politicians, the po-faced Presbyterian Woodrow Wilson—and he has recently trotted out an indistinguishable denunciation of “Promethean politics.”) But the basic charge is a familiar one: liberalism casts us as limitless self-makers, ignoring our essential finitude and dependence on others.

The thesis of Eric Nelson’s fascinating book The Theology of Liberalism, by contrast, is that contemporary liberalism is not Pelagian enough. For it was a kind of Pelagianism, a rejection of original sin and a belief in humans’ essential dignity, that motivated early proto-liberals like Milton, Locke, Rousseau, and Kant. Yet liberalism, Nelson writes, “took a fateful wrong turn in the 1970s.” Abandoning its old belief in individuals’ responsibility for their fates, it came to see all of their attributes—not just wealth and status, but also intelligence and industry—as the morally arbitrary products of chance or fate. The result is a contradiction “between liberalism’s commitment to the fundamental dignity of human beings as choosers and the conviction that vast numbers of choices” are out of our hands, making it hard to see why we should value autonomy in the first place.

The wrong turn can be dated still more precisely: Pelagianism remained central to all liberal accounts of autonomy “until 1971,” when John Rawls published A Theory of Justice. Readers without a background in Anglo-American political philosophy might be surprised by the extent to which Rawls and his disciples stand in here for liberalism as a whole. Nelson’s argument is framed as an intervention within academic political philosophy, but the focus on Rawlsianism does raise questions about its wider implications. If, for instance, liberals have indeed grown more skeptical of notions of individual responsibility, might deeper historical changes explain this shift better than the idiosyncrasies of a single thinker? Conversely, is contemporary liberalism really so committed to a denial of individual merit, or might the frequent associations of liberalism with meritocracy indicate that this denial never traveled far beyond the philosophy department? (Historians of neoliberalism often depict the 1970s as precisely the opposite kind of watershed, the moment when the crisis of social democracy gave rise to the entrepreneurship of the self.)

Nelson’s book traces the fortunes of Pelagianism and Augustinianism in their various guises over the last four centuries. Although this historical and theological focus might lead us to lump him in with the post-liberals, he is anything but—as indicated by the suggestion that liberalism was chugging along fine until the 1970s. He instead comes across as a kind of classical liberal seeking to rescue contemporary liberalism from its egalitarian excesses.

The book’s strength lies in the historical chapters that make up its first half. A brilliant chapter traces the connections between seventeenth-century theological debates about original sin and the political struggles of the English Civil War, in which the defenders of royal authority are counterintuitively revealed as Pelagian believers in free will. Another chapter examines Rawls’s own trajectory, suggesting that his youthful anti-Pelagian theology persisted even after he lost his faith, with his continued denial of the possibility of human merit demonstrating “the perils of secularization.” In later chapters, Nelson uses this history as a springboard into current debates. His basic position is that concerns about the arbitrariness of individual endowments or the legacy of historical injustice cannot disprove the possibility that the more fortunate really deserve their assets. Given how obviously unappealing this position is, he faces an uphill battle in proving it, and accordingly the second half of the book is less satisfying than the first. Without the majestic historical sweep of the early chapters, the reader might feel a familiar sense of being trapped in an argument with a very smart but somewhat dogmatic libertarian.

Nelson’s case centers on what he calls “the theodicy challenge”: we can’t say that the current distribution of assets and endowments is unjust “unless we establish that a counterfactual, perfectly just Distributor could not have chosen it.” That would be tantamount to disproving the possibility of theodicy, the belief that our world reflects the will of an omnipotent and perfectly just God, which is a notoriously difficult task. But to say that theodicy is notionally possible isn’t to say that it’s plausible, and in any case Nelson never really shows why its possibility should serve only to bolster the current distribution of assets. (If we find ourselves endowed with an uncontrollable desire to despoil the rich of their gains, can it be definitively proven that this desire wasn’t implanted by a just and beneficent God?) On another level, the basic framing of the question is misleading. We aren’t confronted with a prepolitical distribution of assets to which politics must then decide how to respond. Any current distribution is already an artifact of political processes, and leaving it alone would be a political decision.

Pelagian liberalism might have some of the right enemies, but that isn’t sufficient reason to get behind it. Nelson’s historical acuity makes his book well worth reading, but his own political alternative risks making liberalism’s wrong turn feel very right.

 

Well to the right of Deneen or Nelson, we find the small but vocal tribe of Catholic integralists, the would-be heirs to de Maistre, who have become an unlikely vanguard of the post-liberal right. (The most prominent of them, the Harvard law professor and indefatigable Twitter warrior Adrian Vermeule, wrote an influential critique of Deneen’s book as a “relapse into liberalism,” in which he called for Catholics to renounce localism and focus on capturing the administrative state.) The recent book that has most captured their imagination, hailed in First Things as “an integralist manifesto,” is not principally a work of theology or political theory but of medieval history: Andrew Willard Jones’s Before Church and State.

The book is a study of thirteenth-century France, framed especially around the figures of the crusader-king Louis IX and his client and ally Gui Foucois (later Pope Clement IV). The close ties between the two men serve as a concrete illustration of Jones’s thesis: that we shouldn’t view this society as one in which “church” and “state” battled for supremacy, but rather as one whose civil and ecclesiastical functions were complementary pieces of “an integral vision which included all of social reality.” In thirteenth-century France there was no church, or state, or sovereignty, but rather “a Christian kingdom”—not, that is, “a State with a Christian ideology,” but rather a kingdom that “was Christian, fundamentally.” Conceptually, the very divide between religious and secular had yet to be invented; empirically, the figures whom we might be tempted to assign to either church or state worked toward the same goals and were often the same people. This “integral vision,” Jones implies, can serve as a model for the world after liberalism.

Jones has written an interesting and intelligent book, although perhaps not the book that he claims to have written. I leave it to the medievalists to assess the granular accuracy of his history, but the general features of his approach are evident even to a non-specialist—above all, its tendency to glide quickly from statements about ideas and ideology to statements about social reality. He claims to depict how French society “actually functioned,” how it provided a shared and “coherent vision.” Yet the kinds of evidence he relies on—royal ordinances, judgments of the Parlement of Paris, letters of kings and popes—are ill-suited to prove these claims, like trying to piece together a comprehensive picture of the contemporary United States from presidential speeches and Supreme Court decisions. The question of how much ordinary people shared the theological vision of their rulers, which has preoccupied scholars of medieval popular religion for decades, never really intrudes here. Jones’s account is therefore best understood not as a depiction of what medieval France was actually like, but as a portrait of its ruling ideology and of the institutions constructed on this basis.

Even reframed in this way, the book remains revealing, for Jones is admirably unwilling to sand off the rough edges of his material. Thirteenth-century France was what the historian R. I. Moore dubbed a “persecuting society.” Although Jones doesn’t use this language, his account reinforces Moore’s suggestion that this society’s various forms of repression were part of a systematic and coherent edifice. Jones particularly stresses that the ferocious efforts to extirpate heresy throughout the century—most notoriously, the massacring of the Cathars of southern France—were inextricable from the broader effort to impose civil order. Within the logic of the system, heresy became synonymous with rebellion and vice versa; merely to live as a Cathar was by definition an act of violence against the social order. Nor was Louis IX markedly friendlier to the infidel than to the heretic. Resisting the temptation to write off the king’s anti-Jewish measures as a regrettable sideshow to his bureaucratic reforms, Jones insists that they were “integral to the rest of the program.” And the fact that the king spent much of his reign on crusade against the Muslims was hardly accidental, for in this world “the legitimate use of force becomes identical to holy war,” meaning that in practice “the drift of all sustained conflict . . . was toward crusade.”

Was the Most Christian Kingdom therefore an oppressive theocracy? “The answer is no,” Jones writes, because “the overriding logic of this understanding is the logic of peace, not that of violence.” Whereas modern social thought assumes a foundational conflict of interests, this world took peace as the baseline, so that coercive force was “legitimate only as a reaction to violence, only when directed at restoring the peace.” This becomes rather less comforting when we recall that any departure from orthodoxy constituted “violence” by definition, and that deviants could therefore be understood as “rebels against peace itself.” (Jones describes a letter from Clement IV to Louis IX encouraging the severe punishment of blasphemous speech, in which the pope “reassures the king that this is not an act of violence on his part, for it is the blasphemers who have attacked God.”) Given this “logic of peace,” readers might be forgiven the thought that a “logic of violence” can’t be all bad, if it simply means accepting the inevitability of some level of social conflict and dissidence.

This vision could hardly be accused of crypto-liberalism. If the goal is to depict an alternative that sits outside even the broadest definition of liberalism, Jones has succeeded. But equally, if the goal were to present the medieval social order as inherently fanatical and bloodthirsty, Voltaire could hardly have done better. How seriously should we take the integralists’ professions of enthusiasm for this world? I’m inclined to suspect not very. (It’s telling that the book’s admirers have read into it a vision of peaceful organic community that is quite at odds with its actual contents.) Perhaps some of them are would-be Torquemadas; most are probably unsure what they want.

Part of the difficulty is that the Second Vatican Council pulled the rug out from under this whole political project. Dignitatis humanae, the 1965 declaration on religious freedom, proclaimed that “all men are to be immune from coercion” by “any human power” in religious matters; those absolutely committed to viewing this as continuous with past practice will find ways to convince themselves, but the intuitive reading is that it represented the church reconciling itself to liberalism. When authority itself goes squishy, what’s the party of authority to do? One option, pursued most notably by the excommunicated archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, is to keep waging war on liberalism even to the point of defying the church. But those unwilling to take this path face a trickier task, and the integralists’ guns-blazing rhetorical style sometimes seems to mask tacit concessions. On the question of whether Catholicism should be imposed through outright coercion rather than mere persuasion, Vermeule grumbles that the distinction is “nearly useless,” before offering an answer that is cryptic to the point of incomprehensibility. As best I can make it out, the integralist state will indeed forswear brute coercion in favor of persuasion and Cass Sunstein–style nudging—but this will be a forceful and manly kind of persuasion and nudging, not at all to be confused with the wimpy liberal version. I doubt Louis IX would be impressed.

Such difficulties help explain the curiously abstract nature of many of the integralists’ claims. We get innumerable denunciations of liberalism’s denial of truth and the good, but fewer suggestions of what their regime would actually do in power. Ban abortion, surely; ban homosexuality, maybe (although even here we can detect some newfound waffling); then what? If attempts to sketch a post-liberal program often bounce between rote communitarianism and empty theatrics, this may reflect the fact that the historical project that gave Louis IX’s France its coherence—what Jones calls “a sort of permanent crusade,” unapologetically wielding an entirely non-metaphorical sword against the heretic and the infidel—no longer seems attractive even to most self-styled reactionaries. No one really has the stomach to burn out the tongues of blasphemers anymore, even if some remain too ornery to admit it. Perhaps breaking free of liberalism is harder than it looks.

 

If right-wing post-liberalism remains more bark than bite, are there any lessons that the left can draw from its difficulties? Not, I don’t think, that we must run to defend something called “liberalism” at all costs: the term can mean so many different things, many of which are not especially worth defending. In particular, there’s good reason to resist the facile suggestion that liberalism is currently besieged by democracy run amok. We still suffer more from a deficit of democracy than an excess, and what’s valuable in liberalism is likely to survive or fall in conjunction with democracy more broadly.

At the same time, a politics that aims to purge itself of all traces of liberalism is likely to be sterile or worse. Liberalism did happen, and many who would disclaim the label still hold onto ideas—about the necessity of certain formal freedoms, or the importance of some constraints on state power, or the inevitable pluralism of social life—that came in its wake. Certainly this is true of the recent leftist upsurge in the United States. A politician like Bernie Sanders, who has explicitly cast himself as an heir to New Deal liberalism, offers a relatively clear case. But something similar could be said about a work like Bhaskar Sunkara’s Socialist Manifesto, which charts a path through social democracy toward market socialism while insisting on the perennial need for “civil rights and freedoms” along with “a free civil society and robust democratic institutions.”

The left, as much as the right, can choose to jury-rig definitions that will let us hold onto the parts of liberalism we like while avoiding the label itself. There are figures in the history of the left whose significance lies partly in having facilitated this task—Rosa Luxemburg, say, or Antonio Gramsci, whose unquestionable personal militancy and martyrdom helped them serve as conduits for ideas more often associated with liberalism. Today, the enormous weight put on “democracy,” an easier term to feel enthusiastic about than “liberalism,” often seems to serve the same function. “Democratic socialism” works as a credo. But on closer inspection it often looks more like liberal-democratic socialism: not simply enacting majority will, but also constraining it to protect individuals and minorities; not simply dismissing the traditional bourgeois freedoms as insufficient, but equally recognizing them as necessary.

Perhaps these maneuvers are harmless enough: what really matters is what we do, not how we describe it. Yet the example of the post-liberal right, shadow-boxing with a “liberalism” that it can’t fully renounce, suggests that a lack of clarity can have costs, channeling energy into symbolic struggles against an imagined enemy at the expense of figuring out what we actually think.

To reject a politics of anti-liberalism at all costs is not to say that everyone can get along, for any attempt to separate the wheat from the chaff in the liberal inheritance will necessarily involve conflict. Property rights, for instance, which for many versions of liberalism are the central rights, must for any liberal-democratic socialist lose this exalted status, and this fact alone is enough to ensure a great deal of practical political conflict. But political conflict by itself is not a sign that we are dealing with entirely incommensurable visions.

Nor is this a prediction of liberalism’s long-term survival. It’s simply to say that none of liberalism’s current critics have pointed to an alternative that is both normatively attractive and entirely non-liberal, and I doubt that we should hold our breath for the emergence of one. The starkest alternative to liberalism currently on offer is not democracy, or socialism, or communitarianism—all of whose tensions with liberalism, however real, are likely not irreconcilable—but an authoritarian capitalism that is equally opposed to all of these possibilities. The pressing task is to figure out what resources any of them might offer for avoiding such a future.


Daniel Luban is a junior research fellow in politics at Oxford.


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