I’m already having a good laugh reading through Matthew Rose’s new book After Liberalism: Philosophers of the Radical Right.
“We are living in a postliberal moment. After three decades of dominance, liberalism is losing its hold on Western minds. Its most serious challenge does not come from regimes in China, Russia, or Central Europe, whose leaders declare the liberal epoch “at an end.” It comes from within Western democracies themselves, where intelligent critics, and not just angry populists, are expressing doubts about its most basic norms. Critiques of liberalism are as old as liberalism itself, of course, and its ideas have never gone unchallenged. For centuries, philosophers have questioned it from all sides. They have blamed it for increasingly inequality and exploitation, and for corrupting culture and religion. They have been especially skeptical of its vision of human beings as rights-bearing individuals who are defined by their ability to choose. But if our moment is not novel in every respect, it is jarringly new to some of us. The idea that human equality, minority rights, religious toleration, or cultural pluralism might be rejected out of principle, and not blind prejudice, is bewildering to many. They are ideas associated with antiquated books and defeated causes – with people living in the past, not looking toward the future.”
Where to start?
There is a lot to unpack in this paragraph.
We first have to go back to the early 19th century when the second and third generation of American intellectuals – the German educated historian George Bancroft foremost among them – began to reimagine the American Founding and tell a story about American national identity.
The United States of the early 19th century was a formally independent nation, but it was a cultural and economic satellite of Great Britain which emerged from the Napoleonic Wars as the global superpower of the world. Britain was in the process of creating the world’s first liberal world order which came crashing down in World War I. The abolitionist movement, for example, rose and triumphed among the evangelical middle class in the British Empire before it caught on and triumphed in the United States.
Liberalism was the fashionable new trend in early 19th century Europe. Backward American elites like George Bancroft who were educated abroad in places like London, Paris and Göttingen caught the disease and brought it back to the United States. The American Republic as it had initially been set up was a federation of sovereign states. We had a “Union” and a “federal government” which was composed of distinct parts. American citizenship was derived from state citizenship. The Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reserved vast powers to the states to regulate their own internal affairs. Prior to the War Between the States, “equality” only existed in the United States insofar as the states had equal representation in the Senate. The fundamental idea of the “Union” which is derived from republicanism is that communities, not individuals, are sovereign. The federal government had no right or power to dictate to the states who was a member of the political body or what rights they had in the states.
Under the original idea of the American Republic, there was vast space for what would now be condemned as “illiberalism.” The states exercised their sovereignty to regulate all kinds of things. Some states even had established churches. It was in this context that what is now condemned as white supremacy and slavery and patriarchy flourished. It took a constitutional revolution in the Reconstruction era to overturn this. The Reconstruction amendments abolished slavery, enfranchised blacks, created national citizenship and created a centralized and consolidated government that was empowered over and above the states. Those who warned at the time like George Fitzhugh that it was a slippery slope have been vindicated.
The “federal government” (now a central government) usurped the power to dictate something called “equal protection of the laws” in the United States. The concept had been invented in the antebellum era and championed by abolitionists. In the name of “equality,” the “federal government” could now enforce a liberal idea of national citizenship on the states. The federal government could now send in the U.S. Army to force the Southern states to accept things like black citizenship and black majority rule. Instead of being self-governing citizens defined by our relationship to our local community and state governments, we became rights-bearing individuals defined by our relationship to Washington. The power relationship was reversed and “equality” and “progress” became central to American identity in this period. The Bill of Rights had previously only restricted the power of the federal government.
The bloodiest war in American history was fought to prevent this shift in power from happening. The Confederate side in that conflict fought to defend and perpetuate the existing constitutional order which was grounded in republicanism. The Confederates were adamant that slavery was only the “occasion” or “incident” of the war which was rooted in a much deeper cultural clash of worldviews about the Constitution. The Confederate side believed that a sovereign state convention was the ultimate and final authority in our system of government. The Union side in that conflict fought for a “new birth of freedom” defined by liberalism on the British model which Eastern commercial elites had always sought to emulate and had hitherto been frustrated since the beginning of the American Republic.
The origins of “progressive liberalism” can be traced back to all the utopian reform movements which grew out of the Second Great Awakening. The abolitionist movement and women’s suffrage movement are only the best known examples of this. The conviction that History itself is on the side of “progressive liberalism” reflects its roots in the early 19th century. George Bancroft who concocted this story about American national identity in his History of the United States which he published in the antebellum era was offering a take on the American Founding seen through the prism of Hegelianism and Romanticism.
At least in the South, we believed:
- The people are sovereign.
- The people are the people of each sovereign state who define citizenship and regulate their own internal affairs.
- The federal government or general government is an agent of the states, not the master of the states, which alone are equal as sovereign bodies.
This isn’t the same thing as liberalism.
The South wasn’t a very liberal place because our inspiration was classical republicanism. “Liberty” means one thing under republicanism and another under liberalism.
Federalism is foreign to liberalism. A liberal state is a unitary state in which all citizens (and corporations) have equal rights in relation to the central government. This inherently clashes with federalism which holds that the people of the states are sovereign and can define their own members and regulate their own internal affairs. In a federal state, “liberty” is exercised in different ways by sovereign communities.
In sum, my first criticism is that Matthew Rose kind of ignores how controversial liberalism was in the early 19th century America and the manner in which it was established as the dominant ideology here, which was during the Reconstruction era, not during the American Founding. “Cultural pluralism,” of course, is another value that emerged much later in the early 20th century. The very idea that “liberalism” is about cultural liberation of individuals from tradition as opposed to securing civil and political rights or free-market economics is a development that we owe to the rise of modernism. Even during the War Between the States, the two sides in that conflict were fighting over a relatively minor difference in their interpretation of republicanism and their view of the Constitution.
“They take as a premise, not a possibility, that American conservatism as it has defined itself for generations is intellectually dead. Its defense of individual liberty, limited government, and free trade is today a symptom of political decadence, they argue, not its solution, Perhaps more significant, they see it as an obstacle to the future they already embody: a political right prepared to dismantle liberal institutions, not simply manage their decline.“
If you listen to mainstream conservatives or conservative liberals, they will describe their own origins in much the same way that I do. They will tell you a story about how movement conservatism can be traced back to either CIA agent William F. Buckley and National Review which was founded in the context of the Cold War during the 1950s or further back to Abraham Lincoln and his interpretation of the American Founding. They are carrying on what Robert Lewis Dabney once called Northern conservatism.
“If they are hopeful about a prospect that others fear, it is because they foresee a revolution in conservative thinking. National solidarity and cultural identity, not individual liberty, will be its principal themes – a conservatism focused on public goods, not private interests. In charting this path, the postliberal right takes inspiration from the progressive left.”
Is this so?
Has the American Right always celebrated “individual liberty” unbound from any type of basis or concern for social solidarity? Has it always embraced causes like antiracism, feminism, multiculturalism and internationalism? Has it always believed in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Dream? Could it be that this type of “conservatism” was fostered by CIA agent William F. Buckley and his successors in the postwar era?
If you were to travel back in time just a few generations ago to the early 20th century, you would find an America in which “Americanism” wasn’t yet synonymous with liberalism. American national identity has been stripped down since World War II. The racial component was jettisoned between 1945 and 1965. The cultural component was jettisoned between 1970 and 1990. The religious component seems to have been stripped away since the 1990s. As Samuel P. Huntington predicted, the republican or liberal component is only now falling away in the 2020s. Nothing holds this country together anymore. This project of dismantling our national identity and substituting new values has only been going on since around 1945. America’s leaders weren’t foolish enough to try something like that until then.
In this sense, the “postliberal right” is merely trying to recover and restore a bunch of things that have been foolishly trashed, lost or forgotten by the mainstream conservative movement. There is nothing new about the idea that there are meaningful biological differences between the races and sexes or that there are two genders. In fact, everyone knew this until yesterday. The most radical idea of the White Nationalists is a “White Republic” which is the oldest and most uniquely American idea. It doesn’t come from anywhere else. “Free speech” is now a “far right” value and cause too. Where did that come from?
“Younger conservatives are seeking a new theoretical basis for our politics, a conceptual framework that makes sense of the failures of the right and the successes of the left. They are second guessing older arguments in their movement’s canon, especially those placing individual liberty above the common good. They are instead looking furtively to dissident authors and taboo traditions, contemplating the cultural, spiritual, and even racial foundations of human identity.”
Americans believed that there was a racial foundation of their national identity until well into the 20th century. The term “racism” itself really wasn’t discovered or known in America until the late 1930s and early 1940s when anxious liberal elites began to associate it with the fascist threat.
As for the canon of the conservative movement, I have never bothered to read it because it is largely worthless. The movement itself has always been controlled and managed by the “intelligence community.” Robert Lewis Dabney dismissed it as “merely the shadow that follows Radicalism as it moves forward towards perdition. It remains behind it, but never retards it, and always advances near its leader.” The role it plays in our system to digest and assimilate each new progressive social revolution into mainstream conservatism with the most recent example being homosexuality and gay marriage.
“Its theories of cultural differences, human inequality, religious authority, and racial biopolitics were widely viewed as invitations to xenophobia and even violence. But whatever their failings, they attempted, as few others have, to imagine a world after centuries of liberal dominance.”
I shouldn’t have to keep pointing out that none of the things were are saying are new. It doesn’t come from the German Conservative Revolution either:
“The principle, in all communities, according to these numerous and various causes, assigns to power and liberty their proper sphere. To allow to liberty, in any case, a sphere of action more extended than this assigns, would lead to anarchy; and this, probably, in the end, to a contraction instead of an enlargement of its sphere.
Liberty, then, when forced on a people unfit for it, would, instead of a blessing, be a curse; as it would, in its reaction, lead directly to anarchy,—the greatest of all curses. No people, indeed, can long enjoy more liberty than that to which their situation and advanced intelligence and morals fairly entitle them. If more than this be allowed, they must soon fall into confusion and disorder,—to be followed, if not by anarchy and despotism, by a change to a form of government more simple and absolute; and, therefore, better suited to their condition. And hence, although it may be true, that a people may not have as much liberty as they are fairly entitled to, and are capable of enjoying,—yet the reverse is unquestionably true,—that no people can long possess more than they are fairly entitled to.
Liberty, indeed, though among the greatest of blessings, is not so great as that of protection; inasmuch, as the end of the former is the progress and improvement of the race,—while that of the latter is preservation and perpetuation. And hence, when the two come into conflict, liberty must, and ever ought, to yield to protection; as the existence of the race is of greater moment than its improvement.
It follows, from what has been stated, that it is a great and dangerous error to suppose that all people are equally entitled to liberty. It is a reward to be earned, not a blessing to be gratuitously lavished on all alike;—a reward reserved for the intelligent, the patriotic, the virtuous and deserving;—and not a boon to be bestowed on a people too ignorant, degraded and vicious, to be capable either of appreciating or of enjoying it. Nor is it any disparagement to liberty, that such is, and ought to be the case. On the contrary, its greatest praise—its proudest distinction is, that an all-wise Providence has reserved it, as the noblest and highest reward for the development of our faculties, moral and intellectual. A reward more appropriate than liberty could not be conferred on the deserving;—nor a punishment inflicted on the undeserving more just, than to be subject to lawless and despotic rule. This dispensation seems to be the result of some fixed law;—and every effort to disturb or defeat it, by attempting to elevate a people in the scale of liberty, above the point to which they are entitled to rise, must ever prove abortive, and end in disappointment. The progress of a people rising from a lower to a higher point in the scale of liberty, is necessarily slow;—and by attempting to precipitate, we either retard, or prematurely defeat it.
There is another error, not less great and dangerous, usually associated with the one which has just been considered. I refer to the opinion, that liberty and equality are so intimately united, that liberty cannot be perfect without perfect equality.
That they are united to a certain extent,—and that equality of citizens, in the eyes of the law, is essential to liberty in a popular government, is conceded. But to go further, and make equality of condition essential to liberty, would be to destroy both liberty and progress. The reason is, that inequality of condition, while it is a necessary consequence of liberty, is, at the same time, indispensable to progress. In order to understand why this is so, it is necessary to bear in mind, that the main spring to progress is, the desire of individuals to better their condition; and that the strongest impulse which can be given to it is, to leave individuals free to exert themselves in the manner they may deem best for that purpose, as far at least as it can be done consistently with the ends for which government is ordained,—and to secure to all the fruits of their exertions. Now, as individuals differ greatly from each other, in intelligence, sagacity, energy, perseverance, skill, habits of industry and economy, physical power, position and opportunity,—the necessary effect of leaving all free to exert themselves to better their condition, must be a corresponding inequality between those who may possess these qualities and advantages in a high degree, and those who may be deficient in them. The only means by which this result can be prevented are, either to impose such restrictions on the exertions of those who may possess them in a high degree, as will place them on a level with those who do not; or to deprive them of the fruits of their exertions. But to impose such restrictions on the exertions on them would be destructive of liberty,—while, to deprive them of the fruits of their exertions, would be to destroy the desire of bettering their condition. It is, indeed, this inequality of condition between the front and rear ranks, in the march of progress, which gives so strong an impulse to the former to maintain their position, and to the latter to press forward into their files. This gives to progress its greatest impulse. To force the front rank back to the rear, or attempt to push forward the rear into line with the front, by the interposition of the government, would put an end to the impulse, and effectually arrest the march of progress.
These great and dangerous errors have their origin in the prevalent opinion that all men are born free and equal;—than which nothing can be more unfounded and false. It rests upon the assumption of a fact, which is contrary to universal observation, in whatever light it may be regarded. It is, indeed, difficult to explain how an opinion so destitute of all sound reason, ever could have been so extensively entertained, unless we regard it as being confounded with another, which has some semblance of truth;—but which, when properly understood, is not less false and dangerous. I refer to the assertion, that all men are equal in the state of nature; meaning, by a state of nature, a state of individuality, supposed to have existed prior to the social and political state; and in which men lived apart and independent of each other. If such a state ever did exist, all men would have been, indeed, free and equal in it; that is, free to do as they pleased, and exempt from the authority or control of others—as, by supposition, it existed anterior to society and government. But such a state is purely hypothetical. It never did, nor can exist; as it is inconsistent with the preservation and perpetuation of the race. It is, therefore, a great misnomer to call it the state of nature. Instead of being the natural state of man, it is, of all conceivable states, the most opposed to his nature—most repugnant to his feelings, and most incompatible with his wants. His natural state is, the social and political—the one for which his Creator made him, and the only one in which he can preserve and protect his race. As, then, there never was such a state as the, so called, state of nature, and never can be, it follows, that men, instead of being born in it, are born in the social and political state; and of course, instead of being born free and equal, are born subject, not only to parental authority, but to the laws and institutions of the country where born and under whose protection they draw their first breath. . . .”
This excerpt is from Sen. John C. Calhoun’s A Disquisition on Government which was published in 1851.
“Very different would be the circumstances under which emancipation would take place with us. If it should ever be effected, it will be through the agency of the Federal Government, controlled by the dominant power of the Northern States of the Confederacy, against the resistance and struggle of the Southern.
It can then only be effected by the prostration of the white race; and that would necessarily engender the bitterest feelings of hostility between them and the North. But the reverse would be the case between the blacks of the South and the people of the North. Owing their emancipation to them, they would regard them as friends, guardians, and patrons, and centre, accordingly, all their sympathy in them. The people of the North would not fail to reciprocate and to favor them, instead of the whites.
Under the influence of such feelings, and impelled by fanaticism and love of power, they would not stop at emancipation. Another step would be taken – to raise them to a political and social equality with their former owners, by giving them the right of voting and holding public offices under the Federal Government. We see the first step toward it in the bill already alluded to – to vest the free blacks and slaves with the right to vote on the question of emancipation in this District.
But when once raised to an equality, they would become the fast political associates of the North, and acting and voting with them on all questions, and by this political union between them, holding the white race at the south in complete subjection. The blacks, and the profligate whites that might unite with them, would become the principal recipients of federal offices and patronage, and would, in consequence, be raised above the whites of the South in the political and social scale. We would, in a word, change conditions with them – a degradation greater than has ever yet fallen to the lot of a free and enlightened people, and one from which we could not escape, should emancipation take place, (which it certainly will if not prevented), but by fleeing the homes of ourselves and our ancestors, and by abandoning our country to our former slaves, to become the permanent abode of disorder, anarchy, poverty, misery and wretchedness.
With such a prospect before us, the gravest and most solemn question that ever claimed the attention of a people is presented for your consideration: what is to be done to prevent it? It is a question belonging to you to decide.”
This excerpt is from Sen. John C. Calhoun’s Southern Address of 1849.
“RESOLVED, That to conquer Mexico and to hold it, either as a province or to incorporate it into the Union, would be inconsistent with the avowed object for which the war has been prosecuted; a departure from the settled policy of the Government; in conflict with its character and genius; and in the end subversive of our free and popular institutions.”
“RESOLVED, That no line of policy in the further prosecution of the war should be adopted which may lead to consequences so disastrous. …”
The next reason which my resolutions assign, is, that it is without example or precedent, wither to hold Mexico as a province, or to incorporate her into our Union. No example of such a line of policy can be found. We have conquered many of the neighboring tribes of Indians, but we have never thought of holding them in subjection—never of incorporating them into our Union. They have either been left as an independent people amongst us, or been driven into the forests.
I know further, sir, that we have never dreamt of incorporating into our Union any but the Caucasian race—the free white race. To incorporate Mexico, would be the very first instance of the kind of incorporating an Indian race; for more than half of the Mexicans are Indians, and the other is composed chiefly of mixed tribes. I protest against such a union as that! Ours, sir, is the Government of a white race. The greatest misfortunes of Spanish America are to be traced to the fatal error of placing these colored races on an equality with the white race. That error destroyed the social arrangement which formed the basis of society. The Portuguese and ourselves have escaped—the Portuguese at least to some extent—and we are the only people on this continent which have made revolutions without being followed by anarchy. And yet it is professed and talked about to erect these Mexicans into a Territorial Government, and place them on an equality with the people of the United States. I protest utterly against such a project.
Sir, it is a remarkable fact, that in the whole history of man, as far as my knowledge extends, there is no instance whatever of any civilized colored races being found equal to the establishment of free popular government, although by far the largest portion of the human family is composed of these races. And even in the savage state we scarcely find them anywhere with such government, except it be our noble savages—for noble I will call them. They, for the most part, had free institutions, but they are easily sustained among a savage people. Are we to overlook this fact? Are we to associate with ourselves as equals, companions, and fellow-citizens, the Indians and mixed race of Mexico? Sir, I should consider such a thing as fatal to our institutions.
The next two reasons which I assigned, were, that it would be in conflict with the genius and character of our institutions, and subversive of our free government. I take these two together, as intimately connected; and now of the first—to hold Mexico in subjection. …”
This is John C. Calhoun on the Mexican War.
What is John C. Calhoun saying here?
Is Calhoun trying to imagine a “post-liberal” world or is Calhoun engaging in a fierce debate about the future of the American Republic with his rivals like Daniel Webster because liberalism was something that was new and fashionable and deeply controversial and not yet established in his time?
Note: John C. Calhoun, George Fitzhugh, Thomas Carlyle and many others in the 1840s and 1850s were already knocking down liberalism in their day.