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Why we need to talk about post-liberalism
A new era has already begun, but can still go in different directions
The fact that during the three years of the covid pandemic, so many people became activists for masks, lockdowns and vaccine passports was a remarkable phenomenon. It was a sign of people's yearning for purpose and community, an expression of a desire to do something for the common good, and a sense that focusing on the self and the individual was not enough to live a fulfilled life.
The breeding ground for this mass phenomenon is the atomised society in which we now live. Loneliness is a growing epidemic throughout the Western world as social interaction declines and more and more young people in particular now spend most of their time on the internet.
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The tragic paradox is that lockdowns and social distancing rules isolated us even more from each other, children could not play with other children, old people were left alone for many months, and many old people even had to die alone because covid rules did not allow relatives to come near them. Feelings of social isolation and loneliness increased during the pandemic as face-to-face social interactions were significantly reduced or eliminated.
The sense of solidarity that seemed strongest at the beginning of the pandemic quickly faded - this was most evident when the discourse shifted from celebrating nurses as national heroes to angrily demanding that unvaccinated nurses be banned from working. What appeared to be a shift towards a more caring society turned out to be a shift towards a more totalitarian one. Large sections of Western society either actively demanded or at least accepted the rapid adoption from China of authoritarian surveillance methods that had not long ago seemed unthinkable in Western societies.
One factor most likely contributing to this dynamic is the sharp decline of religion in Western democracies in recent years. The void left by religion has led to a crisis of meaning.
Mattias Desmet, a clinical psychologist, argues that the crisis of meaning and social isolation increases the rate of depression in society and leads to what he calls 'free-floating anxiety'. He believes that these conditions make people susceptible to manipulation by propaganda and lead to mass formation: When people collectively find a cause that gives new meaning to their lives, they move from social isolation to massive social connection, feeling that they are waging a war against the cause of their collective anxiety.
We seem to be moving from one state of emergency to another. Many progressives saw the pandemic as a test of what could be done about climate change. Indeed, the current discourse on climate change bears many similarities to that of Covid-19. For example, the slogan "follow the science" has been used in both cases to signify adherence to specific dogmas, instead of embracing science as a process reliant on continuous efforts to challenge prevailing wisdom.
In addition, Western governments are increasingly embracing central bank digital currencies which, once introduced and widely used, will increase the power they have over their citizens, controlling their consumption habits through, for example, a personal carbon budget and policing behaviour not unlike China's social credit system.
Political and cultural elites in the West are increasingly resorting to illiberal means under the guise of defending liberal democracy against its enemies. This includes restricting freedom of speech and using emergency or terrorism legislation to justify almost any curtailment of civil liberties and rights. However, the (so far soft) totalitarianism that is manifesting itself across the West is not primarily initiated by governments, but the dynamics unfolding on Twitter in particular are probably just as important in creating the consensus-building and enforcement apparatus that we now see in operation on so many issues. Once established, everyone must follow the consensus or be castigated by the moral guardians, the elite institutions and the social media mobs. As a result, more and more people are self-censoring what they say in public on issues such as race, gender or immigration.
While the narrative that the West is defending liberal values against the enemies of liberal democracy is being pushed harder than ever, the truth is that these words are increasingly empty.
The crisis (and failure) of liberalism
The end of history proclaimed by Francis Fukuyama after the fall of the Berlin Wall was not, as we now know, the end of history. Liberalism, the Western ideology that became globally hegemonic after the Second World War, is now in deep crisis. When Gramsci said that a political crisis "consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born", he could easily have been referring to the current crisis of liberalism.
Dissatisfaction with liberalism has led to the successes of Trump, Brexit, Victor Òrban, the German AfD, etc. Many ordinary people in the West now believe that liberalism has too many downsides: a fragmented society with weakened shared norms and values. Belief in liberal democracy is declining; young people on both the left and the right are turning to authoritarianism. Trust in institutions such as the media, universities and the family is declining rapidly. Christian affiliation is plummeting and birth rates are at record lows, especially in the secular parts of the West. At the same time, the global economic machine that liberalism has created is destroying the very ecological foundations on which human life on earth depends.
The liberal project that has emerged in the West over the past few centuries has long been hailed as a triumph of individual rights and freedoms. Liberal philosophy places individual choice at its heart. It sees people as self-interested individuals, unmarked by culture or history, who should pursue their private interests free from the irrational constraints imposed by custom, religion and popular prejudice, with the modern state there to prevent them from taking advantage of one another.
The political left and right have since pursued their own versions of liberalism in parallel – broadly left on culture and right on economics. On culture, liberalism seeks to remove cultural barriers to the flourishing of minorities and emphasises the importance of individual choice. On the economic front, liberalism seeks to dismantle barriers to free trade.
After the Second World War, and even more so after the collapse of the Soviet Union, liberalism was unstoppable and brought many gains, including the status of women and ethnic minorities in Western societies. In recent years, however, more and more people have realised that liberalism has come at a high price.
The individualistic mindset promoted by liberalism has led to a decline in social cohesion and the erosion of community ties. This has led to the decline of traditional institutions such as the family, resulting in increased social atomisation and the erosion of social trust.
The weakening of traditional mediating institutions by liberal ideology has led to an ever-increasing role for the state in society. As a result, individuals have become increasingly dependent on the state for protection and the satisfaction of their needs and desires, leading to an expansion of state power and influence over all aspects of society.
This may seem paradoxical given the long-standing apparent struggle in liberal democracies between the right, which demands more individualism, and the left, which demands a stronger, more protective state. However, this has always been a false conflict because "the Right and the Left cooperate in the expansion of both statism and individualism, although from different perspectives, using different means and claiming different agendas" as the political scientist Patrick J. Deneen argues in his book Why Liberalism Failed. Both individualism and the protective and authoritarian state have advanced at the same time as people have become less associated with and involved in mediating institutions such as voluntary associations, political parties, churches, communities and the family.
Deneen argues that the liberal definition of freedom contrasts with the ancient and medieval concept of freedom or libertas. The ancient Greeks and Romans, as well as medieval Christians, understood freedom as the ability to act in accordance with the common good and to fulfil one's responsibilities within a given community or political order. Instead, the liberal understanding of freedom has led to an increasingly fragmented and isolated society in which individuals pursue their own interests at the expense of the common good. In contrast, the ancient and medieval understanding of freedom emphasised the importance of belonging to a particular community and fulfilling one's duties within that community, which in turn fostered a sense of shared purpose and commitment to the common good.
One of the most significant consequences of the failure of liberalism is the looming environmental disaster. The individualism and consumerism promoted by liberal ideology have led to a disregard for the natural world that has resulted in catastrophic environmental damage that threatens to destabilise the entire planet. Liberalism has been very successful in destroying any sense of inheritance, or what Edmund Burke called "a partnership between the living, the dead and those yet to be born". Without the sense that we owe something to those who will come after us, which in turn motivates us to make sacrifices to preserve the natural world, we are once again looking to the state to protect us from ourselves. Increasingly, it looks like this will mean governments imposing tight authoritarian control over our lives in the name of protecting the climate.
The sexual revolution is another example of how liberalism has often failed to deliver on its promises. The sexual revolution was supposed to free women from the constraints of tradition and make them happier. There are certainly achievements, such as the pill and legalised abortion, which freed women from unwanted childbearing. But as the writer and feminist Louise Perry describes in her book The case against the sexual revolution, the costs outweigh the benefits, because casual sex without commitment doesn't satisfy most women. It goes against their evolutionary instincts. The decline of traditional institutions such as marriage and family has mainly benefited a few men who live polygamous lives, while many other men and women live more lonely and often miserable lives. The decline in birth rates to well below the replacement rate also means that liberal culture will not survive in its present form.
The fact that so many people in so many Western countries have in recent years shown their deep dissatisfaction with both the economic and cultural excesses of liberalism means that business as usual is not an option. Our societies will become even more polarised and eventually fall apart.
The opportunity of creating a post-liberal space
I suspect that some readers may feel uncomfortable reading and hearing the term post-liberalism. I had a similar reaction when I first heard it, and I am aware that the term could be co-opted by illiberal forces who want to reverse everything associated with the liberal project.
However, I like the term because an honest assessment of our times – as I briefly outlined above – shows that we are not living in the liberal age anymore anyway. Many things, such as digital surveillance and curtailing free speech, that are done under the banner of defending liberalism and liberal democracy are in fact deeply authoritarian, illiberal, and even show clear signs of totalitarianism.
For me, and I think for many of the intellectuals and writers who identify with the idea of post-liberalism, such as Mary Harrington, Patrick J Deneen and Paul Kingsnorth, the aim of the post-liberal conversation is to conduct a candid and open evaluation of where we are, examining what we have gained and lost in the past few decades of the liberal world order, and fostering innovative spaces to explore ideas on how our culture can evolve towards better human flourishing.
The default direction of more authoritarianism and digital surveillance that the world seems to be taking will not achieve this.
On the other hand, it is neither feasible nor desirable to return to the Western culture of the 1950s, as some conservatives may yearn for. Instead, we should consider the traditions and institutions that we are losing or have already lost, and determine which ones we wish to maintain or revive. Take the institution of marriage, for instance, which has been instrumental in fostering more stable and less violent societies. Is it possible to rejuvenate marriage in today's socio-technological landscape? Similarly, we ought to examine which aspects of modernity and the Enlightenment are worth preserving.
In his seminal book A Conflict of Visions, the American economist Thomas Sowell argues that progressives have what he calls an unconstrained view of human nature. They believe in the utopian idea of the human capacity for intellectual and moral perfection and the possibility of complete solutions to problems, while conservatives share a constrained view of human nature. They believe in the inherent limitations of human beings and in the importance of positive trade-offs and process in shaping public policy.
According to the constrained vision, individuals do not simply rationally choose what works and what does not, but more fundamentally it is the competition of institutions and whole societies that leads to the general survival of more effective collections of cultural traits, even if neither the winners nor the losers rationally understand what was better or worse about one set or the other. From this perspective, throughout human history, people have certainly learned to do the right thing without understanding why it was the right thing to do, and they are still better served by habit than by understanding.
While progressives often provide important impetus for changing the status quo, their unconstrained vision always runs the risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to major policy changes and interventions in human culture.
Religion, for example, is an evolutionary adaptation that has enabled large-scale cooperation between and within human societies. Religion is in decline throughout the Western world because of the progressive rational belief that it is an obstacle to progress. We now increasingly recognise that the decline of this social construct is accompanied by a weakened social fabric and a widespread crisis of meaning.
I conclude from Sowell's compelling argument that the constrained vision must become an important part of the post-liberal conversation as an important counterweight to the currently dominant progressive worldview.
A better understanding of how humans have evolved genetically and culturally can help us make better choices when it comes to addressing questions such as how humans can thrive while living in harmony with nature.
Jonathan Askonas, a political scientist, argues that "forging the human order anew means building technologies that make it easier to live well. In some places, the renewal, revival, and reoccupation of the human order of things requires a return to what was done within living memory. In other places, however, it will need to be far more radical in the literal sense: It must return to human nature rooted in man’s bodily dwelling upon the earth. Simone Weil called this process enracinement—actively putting down roots where none exist."
Post-liberal writer Mary Harrington and evolutionary biologist Bret Weinstein recently had a conversation (see video below) on the Darkhorse podcast that I think is the kind of mature post-liberal conversation we need to encourage.
In the context of our dysfunctional elite discourse, far removed from what most ordinary people think, the Protopia Lab aims to create a new centre for post-liberal thought in Barcelona, Spain, to foster the post-liberal conversation and bring together people from across Catalonia, Spain and Europe who want to break out of the current impasse and have an honest conversation about the causes of our cultural crisis and how we can use the crisis creatively to plant the seeds for a better future.
The Protopia Conversations is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.