09 April 2016

What comes afterward?

The neoliberal, globalist, corporate-friendly, free-trade consensus that the United States government has operated under since 1980, is these days being attacked with spectactular vigour (I mean that in both the literal and figurative senses of the term). From the left, the charge against the official Washington ideology is being led by Bernie Sanders, who for the most part represents, not Marxism, but a paternalistic, old-school Keynesian New Deal Democracy, of the sort that was standard-issue of post-WWII America. It is very much a function of the individualism, atomism and nominalism of our political shift in the meantime, that even what the Greatest Generation did to ward off socialism, now looks like socialism not only to its detractors, but also to its supporters. From the right, Donald Trump has been leading a cultural revolt of working-class whites which, policy-wise, owes as much to a tradition of executive-heavy Jacksonian nationalism as it does to anything else.

It doesn’t take an expert to reckon that the Beltway’s favoured mix of economic and social liberalism has only a limited life-span left. Even if the champions of the establishment – Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz and John Kasich – manage to win their respective nominations, I will be quite surprised if the dissatisfaction with the direction of the country over the past 35 years simply dissipates with the passing of an election cycle. Previously-intractable issues (the structural indebtedness of students and low-wage workers; the failures of our foreign and immigration policies; ubiquitous discrimination against working-class whites), issues to which establishment liberalism has no satisfactory answer, have been broached and I’m sure will continue being discussed long after 2017.

The pressing question now is: what comes afterward? After countless failed neoliberal colour revolutions throughout the Arab world, Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia, the cautious and wise observers will be careful to ask whether we know how the replacement for the establishment we overthrow will be any improvement over the status quo ante. And (hopefully!) said observers will take care to evaluate their options. There are, after all, exactly as many variants of anti- and post-liberalism on offer as there are specific and particular projects suited to every interest of class, race, religion, profession and social standing – and (ironic though this may sound coming from a deep critic of liberalism and the Enlightenment more generally, such as yours truly) not all of these variants are created equal, and some may be even worse than what we already have.

I’ll say it up front, though I’ve said it before and I’ll doubtless say it again. No matter how ‘populist’ it might sound, and no matter that it has a raison d’être with which I can’t argue, I cannot in good conscience bring myself to support the kind of political programme Trump brings to the table. Whereas the American élite class have done an incredible job of hollowing out our body of shared moral standards and replacing them with raw emotivism as a substitute, as Lasch himself pointed out, what Trump ultimately represents is the utter abandonment of those same standards. Who can take seriously family values proclaimed by a notorious libertine who is twice-divorced and who treats women like pieces of raw meat? Who can take seriously the basic competencies of hard work, accountability, sincerity and personal responsibility when they are proclaimed by someone who has built his career on a long series of bluffs: pyramid schemes, shell games, reality television and public-relations hype? In short, Trump – for all the excellent points he makes about free trade, the plight of poor whites and even foreign policy – represents an acquiescence to nihilism.

The increased taxation, fairer redistribution, restructuring of the banking system and so forth that Bernie Sanders advocates, is more attractive simply for the reason that it appears to be sincere. In Sanders you have a man who genuinely believes in the common good, and who has spent his entire legislative career fighting for it. (And yes, the idea of having the wealthy pay their share does indeed appeal to yours truly.) But at the same time, the kind of finical tinkering Sanders is basing his campaign on doesn’t reach down to the level of culture, and culture is the seat of our current problems. There are entrenched nexuses of patronage and interest at the core of the American state – nexuses that have an interest in destabilising uncooperative governments abroad; that have an interest in expanding American corporate hegemony at public cost; that have an interest in maintaining a soft ideological conformity in public life – that need to be exposed to scrutiny, and it is worrisome that Bernie Sanders at times seems uninterested in tackling these issues beyond their economic ramifications.

As the editorial staff at the American Conservative have warned us: ‘A void is opening in American politics, and Trump and Sanders are only the first to try to fill it’, and that we should ‘view all of this warily’. Both the description and the admonition are true – and it isn’t difficult to imagine how, if these options are stymied, other, possibly less-healthy, alternatives to the liberalism we’ve come to expect may be allowed to surface. Illiberalisms based on blood-and-soil have a notoriously bloody track record, and those based on scientism and techno-fetishism will undoubtedly land us in That Hideous Strength territory. What we need, rather, is an alternative that has been shaped, if not by Confucianism, then at least by the nobler and more humane strand of the classical thought that was once native to our cultural experience: that of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Seneca. And, hopefully, one which is open to the restoration of a healthy and balanced alliance between labour and agriculture, which is not averse to public ownership and management of communications, transportation, mail and banking infrastructure, but which is also wary of allowing the state to extend its reach down to the affairs of the family, or to the common interests at the community level.


  1. Trump is such a awful person with absolutely no sensible policies. If I was American and he got the nomination, I would vote for Clinton, or maybe Sanders if he got the nomination.

    On the other hand, if the British Conservative Party ever chose somebody like him for leader, I suppose I would still vote Conservative, being a party loyalist.

  2. Speaking from far away, and thus a different perspective, Bernie Sanders appears the least rebarbative of the candidates on offer because he seems the one least likely to start yet another war.

    As for the rest, as someone once said, what is wrong with us that can be solved by politics is not all that is wrong with us, and to expect politicians to solve deep cultural problems is asking a bit too much. That's where the Church is supposed to be doing its leaven thing, starting with its own members.

  3. Matthew - well, it's not his policies I dislike so much as that he's the wrong messenger for them. Absolutely we need to rethink our trade, foreign and immigration policies, and believe it or not, but I've actually read things from Trump in USA Today which sound sensible. It's Trump himself - his persona, his ego, whatever you want to call it - that I can't stand.

    As for the British Conservatives, well... let's just say I'm more a 'wet' fan of Macmillan than Thatcher. I approve and value what the Tories used to stand for, and I'd like to see them go in that direction again.

    1. I think I would probably have been a 'wet.' However, if you're a British Tory, it's hard not to love Thatcher, even if you have some doubts about her economic choices.

  4. Steve - thank you for the comment! It's great to see you back here again!

    I agree, of all the mainstream candidates currently on offer, Sanders strikes me as the most sensible by leaps and bounds. And not just for his economic policies but also for his foreign policy restraint. I don't like his stance on life issues, but I honestly don't see any of the presidential candidates being good on life issues.

    And you're absolutely right, of course, not to expect so much of politicians. I'd still appreciate seeing politicians grapple with some of these cultural questions, even if they don't expect to do anything about it. If you'll pardon a first-time voter his folly, that actually was one of the things that excited me most about Senator Obama in 2008.

  5. Void... yes... as in Rod Dreher... an opportunist par excellence... as in Taki... a rootless hanger-on of the rich... as in Pat Buchanan... an apologist for Holocaust Denial. I'd say that the "American Conservative" is an oxymoron... it's simply the rightwing reverse of the debased neoliberal coin. Bite the coin before accepting it.., there be counterfeits like Dreher in circulation (a newbie Orthodox posturing as an "elder"). Both "conservatism" and "liberalism" are simply two facets of Liberalism. Any group that lionises Burke is NOT Conservative... not in the sense of Bismarck or Stolypin or Dief. In short, your submission on the "American Conservative" is crank and without foundation... that's what my 62 yrs tell me, any road.

  6. Hello, Vara! Welcome to the blog!

    I actually agree with your misgivings about Burke. I am more a fan of the Canadian ‘red Tory’ tradition which draws on Burke’s rival Johnson, as well as Swift, Ruskin and Morris (who, as I have learned lately, was an early advocate for, and sympathiser with, the Slavic Christians languishing under Ottoman rule), and, yes, Diefenbaker. (I don’t know enough, sadly, about Stolypin to make a judgement.)

    Two other things: first, I haven’t yet been published on The American Conservative (not for lack of trying). Second, though I know you may not believe me on this, I am NOT a neoliberal or a ‘liberal conservative’, and am not likely to become one anytime soon.