When even an inveterate social and economic liberal like Boris Johnson can give a speech at the Conservative party conference railing against big business and invoking a paternalist High Tory dirigisme as the governing ideology of the new era, it is a sign of a historic shift in the tectonic plates of politics. When the party’s neoliberal faction, whose decades-long hostile takeover of British conservatism had until now reigned unchallenged, is reduced to mourning its new political marginalisation, we can celebrate the end of a disastrous era, and the dawning of another. It’s as if post-liberalism has won the political argument: we are all post-liberals now.
What was a few short years ago the preserve of marginal discontents is now the hegemonic discourse: it is the liberals who are on the back foot, dreaming up ever-more elaborate conspiracy theories to explain the collapse of their ideology.
Yet Britain’s most prominent post-liberal theorists are not claiming victory, and are instead mourning their defeat. In a plaintive recent essay, Blue Labour’s Jonathan Rutherford has claimed that “we imagined Blue Labour was about renewal, but, in hindsight, it was already too late. One thinks of the Owl of Minerva taking flight ‘only with the falling of dusk.’” For Rutherford, “Labour no longer possesses the intellectual and philosophical resources for a political renaissance and it does not look beyond itself to acquire them”.
Instead of seizing this historic moment, the Labour Party has lost itself in the abstruse theological disputes of a liberalism increasingly unmoored from reality, and become ever more feverish in policing its ideological purity as its voter base vanishes into history.
To understand the sense of gloom pervading British post-liberalism, we must return to its diagnosis of the West’s political crisis. The argument is this: liberalism contains within its essential nature the seeds of its own destruction. By dividing communities, social and economic classes and nations into a constellation of individuals warring among each other in search of self-advantage, liberalism negates any possibility of collective action or solidarity. Essentially a northwest European secular heresy derived from the Protestant Reformation, liberalism seeks to remake the world in its own image, projecting its own ideal form onto utterly different societies in a mission as doomed to failure as America’s wars in the Islamic world.
In its purest economic form, liberalism, the ideological nursemaid of capitalism, destroys its social and fiscal base in pursuit of an idealist model, with disastrous results. It is increasingly rejected by voters across most of the Western world. And yet it hangs on to tenuous political power through its capture of the economic elites. Aware of their slipping grasp on power, encircled by enemies, liberals have retreated into fundamentalist fervour, fighting a rearguard battle against democracy while enforcing purity within their own ranks. This is why we are mired in the culture wars; this is why we are trapped in an increasingly heated political interregnum; and this is why political crisis has become endemic across the West. The rulers have lost the consent of the ruled; even when the insurgents win elections, they have no control over the actually-existing levers of power.
It is in this context that the Blue Labour theorist Adrian Pabst has published Postliberal Politics: The Coming Era of Renewal, which functions as an excellent introductory guide to post-liberal thought for wavering liberals, and a warning to current post-liberals to shun the temptations of authoritarianism.
For Pabst too, the Covid era transpired to be a “false dawn” for post-liberalism, as “the winners of the shutdown were tech oligarchs such as Amazon, Google or China’s Alibaba while family-owned businesses folded and inner-city shops were boarded up.” Instead of ushering in the post-liberal moment, then, “the ‘new normal’ is largely an intensification of the forces that dominated the old status quo: capitalism, nationalism and technocracy. Instead of resolving the interregnum, politics seems caught in an impasse.”
In setting out his stall, Pabst outlines the failings of a zombie liberalism still holding onto power, in which a dominant class “prefers a world of individual atomized exchange underwritten by an ideology of globalism”, and where democracy and citizenship are “debased and become merely functional arrangements to advance the interests of a new cosmopolitan class”.
Yet the most striking aspect of Pabst’s book is not his rejection of liberalism but rather his rejection of existing Rightist strands of post-liberalism, most notably their American incarnation. The dominant theme of Pabst’s book is one of preserving post-liberalism’s position as a strand of Left-wing thought which upholds the genuine achievements of liberalism, a socially conservative branch of socialism rather than an economically interventionist faction of conservatism.
For Pabst, it is the Rightist “self-styled post-liberals” who are the enemy within: “behind their version of ‘Left on the economy’ and ‘Right on culture,”’ he argues, “lurk forms of statism and moralism that will do nothing to secure shared prosperity or plural societies.” Pabst warns that post-liberalism is too often “associated with a politics that is anti-liberal and anti-modern, animated by a reactionary desire to roll back the new rights of minorities and to return to social and political exclusion along the axes of race, sex or class”.
Taking aim at the idealised Mitteleuropa of prominent American conservative intellectuals, Pabst argues that while Hungary and Poland are superficially attractive for managing to “combine a protectionist state with pro-family welfare and education policies”, in reality they are largely reliant on fiscal dumping and deregulation to attract foreign capital while sliding into authoritarian nationalism that undermines constitutional freedoms.”
“What may look post-liberal turns out to be mostly anti-liberal,” warns Pabst, arguing that “behind the simplistic slogan ‘left on the economy and right on culture’ lurks an admiration for a politics of state control and the rule of strongmen,” an “authoritarianism sliding into novel forms of fascism” in which “authoritarian systems extend state surveillance into all spheres of societal and personal life, co-opting any independent movement and persecuting non-conformist groups.”
Yet the obvious retort is, of course, that this system of surveillance and enforced conformity is a perfect description of actually-existing liberalism, at least in its deranged 21st-century incarnation. For the unfortunate reality for a viable Left-wing post-liberalism is that, as Rutherford laments, it is an entirely marginal force on the political Left. Even Blue Labour’s relatively anodyne platform of worker-led cooperatives, state support for family formation, reshoring vital industries and enforcing currently-existing immigration laws sees them consistently called fascists or even Nazis by their own party’s activist base.
A wild and paranoid recent review of Pabst’s book illustrates the problem. “The truth is,” writes the reviewer, “that he has hitched his wagon to the post-liberal narrative of the national-populist right assiduously promoted by the UnHerd website,” whose “editors and contributors formed the core participants at the Windsor Castle symposium acknowledged in Pabst’s preface as the inspiration for his book.”
I should probably add here that I attended this conference, and while membership of some secretive reactionary cabal under royal patronage would be a gratifying experience, it is as divorced from reality as the rest of the review, which is a classic example of the conspiratorial hysteria with which ageing liberals console themselves for the collapse of their ideological dreamworld.
Despite Pabst taking great pains to demarcate a Left-wing post-liberal space from that of the national populist right, the reviewer goes on — and on, and on — to claim that he “can’t resist the temptation to promote national-populist — and alt-right — conspiracy theories about ‘the fusion of woke capitalism with extreme identity politics’” that “Post-liberalism is a right-wing, nationalist project seeking to incorporate and hegemonise sections of the left by splitting it from its social liberal base.”
If this is the Left among which Blue Labour aims to carve out a post-liberal movement, then the project surely has little chance of success. With Labour so internally divided, and further from power than they have been in decades, the chances of guiding the party towards a humane post-liberal ethos and then leading it to electoral victory seem impossibly remote. So why waste time on a failing political party whose activists hate you and everything you stand for?
This is the essential conundrum of Blue Labour, and the reason for its perpetual marginalisation. Post-liberals should leave political tribalism to Americans: politics is simply the means to reshape the state in your image, and parties are merely useful vessels to do so. Logically, the conclusion is that the only current means of shaping British politics is as a faction within the ruling Conservative party, whose dominance of British politics is unchallenged; it is already making post-liberal noises to anchor its new hold on the post-industrial north, without any serious intellectual direction or engagement.
Whether we like it or not, post-liberalism’s greatest opportunity to sway the course of politics is on the centre-right — and the road to doing so is through ideological capture of the state’s institutions, just as the neoliberals did forty years ago.
The key to victory is surely to utilise the power of the state through democratic means to break the anti-democratic liberal hold on the political system and advance post-liberalism from a matter of debate among a tiny handful of academics and writers to a functioning political programme. Yet Pabst, with a watchful eye on the authoritarian statism of China and Russia, and on the illiberal democracy of Hungary and Poland, views the untapped power of Leviathan with alarm. “Unmediated state sovereignty on the model of Machiavelli’s Prince or Hobbes’ Leviathan risks authoritarian control at home and anarchy abroad,” he warns, so “the challenge before us is to turn the existing platforms into public utilities owned by the people, not the state, and to run them as mutuals – with private providers competing on the provision of services.”
These are noble goals and a vast improvement on the alternatives, yet there is an avoidance of the practical path towards implementing them. How do you break the power of global corporations and the tech oligarchs? How do you unprise the grasp of what Pabst terms the “sham clerisy who dominate much of the media, education and the civil service” on the national institutions they have commandeered for themselves?
Little platoons, however right and just their cause, can function only within a broader army structure to nurture and guide them. The only viable means to victory, then, is surely by employing the power of the state just as the neoliberals did, and the most realistic means of doing so is through the nascent statist centre-right. The managerial-technocratic Labour Party, which has junked the economic radicalism of the Corbyn manifesto while doubling down on liberal identity politics, certainly doesn’t intend to.
If post-liberals do not do this, authoritarians will, as we see in China’s crackdown on oligarchs like Ali Baba’s Jack Ma and on tech platforms. Paradoxical though it may seem, the path to a radical localism surely lies through a resurgent state which must then give away the power it has reluctantly assumed to bring about necessary reform. It is as if post-liberals have adopted the teleological assumptions of liberals, that the arc of history will drop power into their laps, without also adopting their hunger for power, and their willingness to use the state to achieve it.
Pabst is correct to state that both the Conservative party and the Republicans remain beholden to capital, and superficially adopt post-liberal language to win popular support while continuing disastrous liberal policies. Yet there are reasons for hope. As the Marxist Italian sociologist Paolo Gerbado observes in his new book The Great Recoil, the new statism is a distinct phenomenon from the crude populisms of the decade’s first half and is still a malleable force, waiting to be shaped.
The task of doing so can be taken up by either Right or Left, or by a post-liberal synthesis of the two. Younger conservatives in America, as defined in Park McDougald’s incisive survey of the New Millennial Right as the conservative analogue of “millennial socialism”, are “frustrated with the politics of their elders”, and want “a more solidaristic conservatism that is less libertarian, both culturally and economically, and in some ways less liberal”. In time, they will capture the institutions of conservatism, just as in time the millennial socialists will capture those of the Democrats.
In Britain too, much of the energy on the younger Right is towards forging a confident, developmentalist conservative state that corrects the most harmful errors of liberalism, and spreads economic growth and social solidarity across every corner of the nation. Time may be on the post-liberals’ side, in the long term, but only if they do not waste today’s narrow window of opportunity on either preaching to the unconvertible or shrinking from their most viable path to power.
Throughout his book, Pabst diagnoses the problems with unerring accuracy yet avoids the obvious conclusion. There is a missing element, the how, by which post-liberalism triumphs. A war only ends when one side wins decisively: post-liberals are unwilling to deliver the final blow, instead mourning their ostracisation from a rump political left which despises them as existential enemies.
Without a Constantine to convert, without the power of a Rome behind them, post-liberals will find themselves trapped in the political catacombs forever, meekly hiding from a savaging in the amphitheatre. They cannot convert the liberal clerisy from within: they will be forced to defeat them from without, before authoritarians do. The gap between conservative and socialist post-liberals has always been largely cosmetic: perhaps the future of Blue Labour now lies in shaping a dirigiste, paternalist and communitarian Red Toryism.