In recent years a perennial controversy has returned to the fore: namely, the issue of the state’s power to order the society it governs, of statecraft as soulcraft. “Liberalism” is usually the center of attention in such debates, but it’s recently struck me that the latter-day right-wing authoritarians who ridicule individual liberty rarely engage with a question that, strangely, libertarians fail to ask them: what is the ultimate goal, the purpose, of their regime?
What kind of world do they seek to create? What kind of man, what kind of soul, do they seek to cultivate through their policies and preferred social structures? And why should we support them in those efforts?
After all, as I point out in my post “The Twilight of Conservatism”, the recipe that post-liberals and increasingly mainstream conservatives are currently offering, namely bigotry and thuggery alone, is simply not a goal that can inspire even the conservative base, let alone the general population. For all their ridicule of libertarians for failing to consider these philosophical questions, their own visions have been shockingly lacking.
Behind the Bluster, What?
As far as I can tell the post-liberal dream is to take control of the state and use whatever means that are expedient, without regard for individual liberty (or laws and customs?), to extirpate the menace of liberalism from the face of the Earth. This is supposed to distinguish them from mainstream conservatives, who will balk at such methods and might even believe in liberalism to some extent themselves. And that’s literally all there is to it.
It’s ghoulish in my view, but at least it’s a goal: destroy one’s enemies. But how is that any more transcendent a vision for ordering society than what liberalism itself offers, namely individual freedom? One might think that question would be irrelevant, and indeed it may be irrelevant except for one big wrinkle: the question of why post-liberals believe liberalism is bad in the first place.
The heart of the entire post-liberal critique as I understand it is that we live under liberalism, that liberalism has stripped from the masses any kind of transcendent or inspiring goal to live for, that we have been left to wallow in the mud of its atomization, and that our lives have consequently been stripped of any meaning.
Strong stuff, but the most purpose in life post-liberalism offers if we dedicate ourselves to it is destroying the people and ideologies that gave us this meaningless existence. So that’s it? These people whose entire political horizon consists of destroying their enemies dare to lecture the rest of us about how insipid our visions are? Come on.
If these post-liberals think their movement is going to provide some higher calling for people to strive for, something that can reinvigorate meaningful purpose in people’s lives, they’re going to have to do much better than that if they want a hypothetical complete success of their politics to produce anything but sore disappointment.
Those dastardly Libertarians!
Perhaps an equally fundamental problem with post-liberals is that they labor under the bizarre delusion that libertarians somehow rule the world, even though a surveillance state and police state has effectively abolished civil liberties, taxation and government spending are at or near record highs, regulation is far more voluminous and onerous than any other time in history, and the most minute details of our personal lives are subject to scrutiny and regimentation at the hands of the nanny state. In addition to all that (!), lockdown policies have spread worldwide and have become unquestionable dogma in the political mainstream.
Needless to say none of these rather important features of the status quo are remotely liberal, much less libertarian. Yet despite lockdown practically walking right up and biting them, post-liberal intellectuals remain as resolute as ever in their conviction that radical individualism and too much liberty is the problem with our civilization.
Post-Liberalism: too Moderate?
This bizarre juxtaposition produces the amusingly surreal result of this “radical” movement’s flagship policy proposals tending to amount to a mere intensification of the status quo we already live under: an echo, not a choice. Even the more out-there proposals of the movement’s integralist wing, such as refounding the United States as a Catholic theocracy, usually amount to baptizing the nanny state.
Given that we live under a profoundly anti-liberal regime, any genuinely radical critique of or opposition to its diminution of the human person will necessarily have much in common with liberalism, particularly its more extreme strains such as libertarianism and anarchism. Any “opposition” short of that rings hollow to the masses, even if they cannot articulate why, and precisely the absence of a true opposition is the major cause of the emptiness that has characterized politics in recent generations.
Statecraft as Soulcraft: a Game Liberalism can play
This warped view of the world we live in, namely that liberal individualism produces the status quo, is a major cause of post-liberals’ fundamental misconceptions about liberalism’s very own answer to statecraft as soulcraft. Yes, as Blake Smith ably points out, liberalism is not silent on the question of soulcraft. Not that you’d know it judging by standard liberal rhetoric; libertarians are temperamentally allergic to even contemplating such philosophical questions, likely due to their quite reasonable and (in my view) correct belief that soulcraft is not a legitimate object of state action. In my view, however, this is a mistake, as it leads friends of liberty to cede that ground to mankind’s enemies within; it’s terrain libertarians can fight on and win, and rather easily too.
Libertarians seek a world of individual liberty, where each man is free to be the master of his fate, the maker of his own destiny. Rather cleverly, the libertarian kind of regime effectively outsources existential questions to each individual or community.
Clever not because it weasels out of having to provide an answer to such questions, but rather because there are real benefits to a libertarian approach to man confronting his place in the cosmos, diversity driving greater experimentation being the most obvious, leading to a kind of Darwinian competition for the best means of achieving human flourishing.
Only One need reach the Stars
Only unbridled individualism maximizes such competition, which happens to be very important, since over the long term it matters not if all humans (metaphorically or literally) reach the stars, only that at least some do and form the seed of our posterity; placing any ceiling on the level of success one individual can reach for the sake of raising the floor for those who fail reduces the range of outcomes, and that runs a serious risk of reducing those who clear the bar required to reach the stars from “a few” to “zero”, a crabs-in-a-bucket scenario that leads to human extinction. There is a kind of profound social injustice in obstructing individual excellence.
For some reason it’s taboo to explicitly defend unbridled individualism on this basis, with even its proponents feeling some bizarre compulsion to play defense in the face of altruists’ attacks, at least outside the Objectivist movement (here’s one very notable and pleasant exception), but it’s the truth: the wages of collectivism are not only immiseration but ultimately death.
Liberty builds Character
Libertarians tend to shy away when conservative critics accuse libertarianism of cultivating a certain kind of man, but they shouldn’t, for like all regimes a certain kind of character is indeed cultivated in a libertarian order. About the only people willing to engage with this question are liberty’s opponents, but a full-throated defense of the libertarian man is shockingly easy to make.
Under a regime of personal liberty independence and good judgment become far more necessary than in a regime of obedience to the state; every man reaps the full reward of honing his own faculties to the best of his ability, bears the full risk of his failures, and takes all the spoils from his victories. No man may stand in the way of another man becoming the best he can be.
I would add, however, the big caveat that liberalism, and by extension libertarianism, once again rather slickly outsources it to the individual or to the community. Liberty has the unique flexibility of permitting any kind of social organization so long as it’s voluntary. Thus a hierarchical society of mindless obedience to a single lord is possible in principle; in practice, however, we only have the high degree of centralization we have today, with 200 or so sovereigns, due to institutional violence that would not exist in a free society.
Without recourse to coercion it’s extremely likely that even the most communitarian free world will need several orders of magnitude more than a couple hundred men able and willing to act as sovereigns, the kind of man liberalism seeks to cultivate. A free world of rugged individualists will have still greater need of liberal men, perhaps approximating the ideal of billions of sovereign men.
Among the goals a regime might set for itself, the purpose of the power it wields, is power for its own sake, which fits surprisingly well in a world where freedom is the substrate upon which virtue is cultivated, constructed, deconstructed, and reconstructed. Optionality is a virtue when pursuing any goal, after all, and the more power one holds, the better one can not only realize but also conceive of options for living, the more paths open up for turning the universe’s raw material into creation, the more one can bend the surrounding world and even reality itself to one’s will.
Now that’s an inspiring vision that can lead to human flourishing! Although the pursuit of power is usually associated with the pursuit of Orwellian tyranny, authoritarians coming to exalt it, libertarians coming to condemn it, I suspect only unlimited individualism can ever produce unlimited power, a world where all men can break the chains that bind them and free themselves to fulfill their dreams. The apostles of powerlessness as a virtue say the vice of the tyrant is hubris, but in truth the vice of the tyrant is fear, his mentality servile, as Friedrich Nietzsche once put in his notebooks:
I have found strength where one does not look for it: in simple, mild, and pleasant people, without the least desire to rule—and, conversely, the desire to rule has often appeared to me a sign of inward weakness: they fear their own slave soul and shroud it in a royal cloak (in the end, they still become the slaves of their followers, their fame, etc.) The powerful natures dominate, it is a necessity, they need not lift one finger. Even if, during their lifetime, they bury themselves in a garden house!
The cultivation of mastery, the highest version of the common good, the fulfillment of the human will to power, requires freedom, radical individualism, and all the bêtes noires of post-liberalism. Power matters. Indeed, it may not be a coincidence that the increased meaningless of life in modernity post-liberals decry has gone hand in hand with the systematic disempowerment of the human individual, with the waxing hegemony of the culture of fear, with the death of Freedom and the elevation of Safety as our society’s one true god, with modernity’s profound belief in the vulnerability of the human person. As I said in my post “Lockdown, the Culture of Fear, and the Politics of the Future”:
This view of the human being as fragile, dependent, and vulnerable is the fundamental premise of what Frank Furedi has termed “therapy culture”, the idea that the individual, and by extension society, is incapable of handling his own affairs in a healthy, competent, fair, respectful, or otherwise correct way and therefore should be, indeed must be, managed from the outside by bureaucratic institutions comprised of suitably trained professionals. The principle of this extremely paternalistic ideology extends into the most trivial domains of everyday life, and is the root cause of the much-discussed “nanny state”, and has nurtured the latest manifestation of the “police state”. Paternalistic management even extends into the human mind and soul, as evidenced by the shockingly intrusive campaigns to change implicit and unconscious attitudes and thoughts to conform with the ideology of powerful social institutions.
This ideology also intersects with the cult of safety. Safety has been steadily elevated by our society as the guiding principle of human life. You can see the safety cult at work by noticing that it is so common as to be unremarkable for leaders in government to say their first duty is to “keep us safe” as ordinary citizens say to each other “be safe” and “stay safe”. For many years now almost every social institution has framed or reframed its mission to conform with the idea that safety comes first, to the extent that safety is often elevated above its ostensible purpose.
Toward a Choice, not an Echo
To this, is not post-liberalism as we know it an echo, not a choice? If it ever succeeds its authoritarianism will be its own undoing, exacerbating the very crisis of meaning, the hollowness of modernity, the emptiness of politics it seeks to repudiate. My conclusion to that post serves just as well as an example of what a genuine choice looks like:
If civilization is to advance or indeed even survive at all into the future, we must embrace freedom over safety, opportunity over stability, heroism over vulnerability, courage over fear. Every great cultural change started with small cultural change; step by step in our personal lives and relationships we can put these principles into action, if we stay mindful and watchful for opportunities that come our way.
The ideology that delivers our better future, that makes these necessary choices, may not be provided by any variant of liberalism; post-liberal ideologies and strategies for human liberation may well be necessary. But this is a frontier arguably pioneered by Friedrich Nietzsche and continuing to be explored by the likes of Nick Land; anyone interested in a radical critique of or opposition to the status quo beyond liberalism shouldn’t waste their time joining the ranks of the mainstream “post-liberal” movement. Whatever brand of politics is mankind’s salvation at our juncture in history, post-liberal or otherwise, will be the antithesis of post-liberalism as we know it.