What is postliberalism? The term is bandied about nowadays, generally as a pejorative to describe so-called “illiberal” conservatives and rightwing personalities who supposedly have political views antithetical to the rule of law, republican and democratic institutions, and the post-1945 global order based in commercial-capitalist economics and American military hyper-dominance. This criticism of the postliberal right is pushed by rather ignorant and silly people—for postliberalism is a term that first emerged in religious studies, especially at my alma mater Yale Divinity School, and refers to a critique of the assumptions of materialist modernity more than anything else. This critique of the assumptions of materialist modernity also includes the political left just as much as it does the right. In the aftermath of the 2022 elections, it is now relevant for us to explore postliberalism in light of its mainstream politicization and entry into the political lexicon.
While postliberalism emerged as a critique of the assumptions of modernity within theology, the political-theological question necessarily meant postliberalism would meander into politics where it certainly entails a critique of liberalism since liberalism is bound up with the assumed dogmas of modernity. But what is liberalism? Liberalism is not the indoctrinated lie that has been force-fed down our throats and how liberalism, and only liberalism, concerns itself with the rule of law, republican and democratic institutions, and individual rights protected by constitutions. (Maybe only the shallow writers and staffers at the CATO Institute believe “liberalism is the solution” and that only liberalism conferred the rule of law, republican and democratic institutions, and individual rights—but no one takes the CATO Institute seriously anymore and for good reasons too.) The rule of law, republican and democratic institutions, and individual rights all existed before the seventeenth century and were not the invention of some magical abracadabra moment called The Enlightenment (the greatest propaganda term ever invented) even though that is what is often taught.
Liberalism, by the foundational philosophical texts of the liberal theorists of the Enlightenment, is a materialist conception of the world, human nature, and politics in which science, technology, and humans as rational and economic automata create a world of minimal bodily harm through the triumph of science, technology, and economic cooperation. “Freedom from harm,” as I’ve written elsewhere, is the foundational pillar that unites the writings of Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Baruch Spinoza, all the way up to John Stuart Mill and more recently John Rawls and his disciples. In short, all the major figures associated with liberalism—“classical” and “modern”—agree that a world freed, or significantly reduced, from bodily harm through the triumph of science, technology, and economics should be the goal of modern life and politics. While some figures within liberalism granted a private space for religion as an ultimately unimportant personal belief individuals may hold (so long as it doesn’t conflict with liberalism’s global scientistic-economic project), the functional application of liberal philosophy was, and remains, materialistic (science, technology, and economics all have immediate and practical material manifestations) which would invariably banish the transcendent from human consciousness and political society; the result of this would be the slippage into moral relativism where the only good was the low good of bodily comfort offered by material security and consumption.
“Narrative theology” is another name by which postliberalism goes. Postliberalism as Narrative asserts that humans live by stories (an idea shared by Plato) and that modernity itself has its narrative story of material progress and individual flourishing through economic and political liberty and equality: the narrative of Whiggish liberalism. Postliberalism challenged this implicit narrative of modernity by articulating the view that more and more humans were, in fact, suffering interior/metaphysical/spiritual loss and confusion and that the advances of science and technology had created weapons of mass destruction and unleashed a horror and terror that had led to the bloodiest century in human history. So much for rational peace. This view was articulated by theologians like Karl Barth who had an outsized influence on the formation of postliberalism at Yale at the end of the twentieth century during the Barthian renaissance in theological scholarship and creativity.
Taking postliberalism for what it actually is, a critique of the materialist assumptions of progressive perfection in modernity through political and economic liberalism, we are certainly moving toward a postliberal future. The new left and new right both criticize the assumed dogmas of liberal modernity. The left criticizes modernity from the standpoint of a new Marxism in which liberal modernity is viewed as an age of economic exploitation and imperial colonization where science and technology are oppressive and have advanced inequality and capitalist inequality rather than having advanced egalitarianism and global cooperation. The right criticizes modernity from a myriad of standpoints depending the specific political clique in question (more on this in a moment), but all the various new right movements seem to coalesce around the idea that human nature is more than materialism and rational (economic) cooperation between individuals and that the transcendental life of the individual and the collective matter. Here it is important to recall the writings of Eric Voegelin, who noted in his magisterial Race and State that the different schools of transcendental politics by the late nineteenth century were grounded in theology, culture, or hereditarian biology (a new discovery at the time) or some combination of the three. Likewise, both the new left and new right understand themselves through narrative identity—a story to make sense of themselves and the world in which they live—which stands against the narrative identity of individualist libertarianism and the economic self-creator and consumer of liberalism.
Postliberalism on the Left
The postliberalism on the political left is unique insofar that it shares certain modern assumptions: metaphysical materialism and the belief in progressive egalitarianism that can be brought about through scientific and economic power and redistribution. It is widely acknowledged in political philosophy that socialism and communism, especially in its Marxist variety, are outgrowths of the Enlightenment just as much as they also offered critiques of the Enlightenment. What leftwing postliberalism does, however, is deconstruct the liberal narrative of Enlightenment modernity. We have not been getting freer, more prosperous, or more equal is its common narrative assertion. On the contrary, liberal institutions and their capitalist owners have been engaged in oppression, economic exploitation, and creating new hierarchies through social, political, and economic oppression and exploitation while claiming these new inequalities as advancements in freedom and equality (for instance, women have the right to vote even though they are supposedly still subjected to male and economic exploitation—so much a step forward toward freedom and equality). In many ways, postliberal leftism is a repackaged brand of Marxism offering a critique of the assumed dogmas of liberal modernity on one hand while accepting other assumed dogmas of liberal modernity on the other.
The new narrative identity of leftwing postliberalism goes beyond orthodox Marxism, however, in embracing the narrative of civil rights liberation especially in gender and sexuality found in Wilhelm Reich and Shulamith Firestone. The basic narrative offered by the postliberal left is that capitalism and bourgeois family structures oppress sexual and gender minorities. This serves to double the critique of the naïve Whiggism implicit in liberalism’s narrative of democracy, liberty, and equality. To the postliberal leftist, only the rich white male and his accomplice wife and children (generally speaking) have benefited from “democratization” and capitalism. The narrative identity formed by leftwing postliberalism is that you are an individual who has been oppressed but have the opportunity to express “your true self” and achieve your liberation from the false structures of power that claim to offer you liberty and equality but in reality enforce enslavement and inequality. (And here the assumed individualism of the creative self of modernity is retained.) The true movement to democracy, liberty, and equality is not through the political mediums and constitutional procedures of liberalism, which reinforce division and oppression, but through civil rights revolutionism—non-violent and violent—and the politics of socialist redistributionism.
Nevertheless, leftwing postliberalism shares many of the assumptions of the liberal modernity it critiques as already mentioned. What it does in its critique of modernity is argue that the current narrative of liberal modernity is false or at least deeply deceptive and not entirely true while accepting the assumed tenets of metaphysical materialism and the power of science and technology to create a more egalitarian world. Science, technology, and economics (capitalism) have not yet advanced the promise of liberation, prosperity, and justice as the Whiggish liberals say. Rather, these forces which once promised us liberation and a better tomorrow have reinforced slavery and inequality and have robbed generations of a better tomorrow (a common idea among postliberal environmentalist politics). Given this reality, it is the task of the political left to utilize the forces of the new science to create the utopia promised by modern political philosophy. As George Orwell, a proto-postliberal socialist, recontextualized, the goal of socialism was to achieve the best world “technically achievable” (note the implicit techno-scientistic materialism of his term).
Leftwing postliberalism, despite its critique of modernity, shares the fundamentally modern belief that a utopia can be built through the good application of science, technology, and economics. It’s just not going to happen under the liberal order that has been created since the seventeenth century because liberal modernity is but a dying byproduct of capitalist exploitation, imperialism, and slavery. Here, though, we see the postliberal left offer its critique of liberalism and replace liberalism’s narrative of modernity with its narrative of capitalist, imperialist, and racial exploitation and oppression. The aggressive rise of “woke” progressive politics speaks to the energy and fervency of postliberal leftism which, despite apparent setbacks, is not going to go away. Once the octogenarians of the liberal accommodationists, like Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi, disappear the postliberal left will control all “center-left” politics.
Postliberalism on the Right
The postliberalism on the political right is more complex and diverse than on the left, in part, because where the postliberal left is generally united in its critique of modernity as hitherto outlined—thus making it a potent and powerful force that is largely unified—the postliberal right is a disparate and often contradictory collection of forces which includes Christians, New Right pagans, racialists, isolationists, populists, and disillusioned conservatives and libertarians following the general disappointment of conservative party politics since the end of the Cold War. All the various forces and groups arrayed on the postliberal right have different and competing goals, and they are only loosely unified in what they oppose instead of what they promote.
In addressing the postliberal right, I will follow Voegelin’s assessment of transcendent politics by looking at Christian postliberalism, aesthetic conservatism (or cultural conservatism), and the now infamously termed “Alt-Right” as the three most visible and vibrant manifestations of postliberal rightwing politics.
It suffices to say for the broader postliberal right, what unites all groups and individuals who are part of this movement is their opposition to the current political establishment (both left, right, and center), the mainstream media, and academia. That’s the easiest baseline to understanding the postliberal right. The postliberal right is also generally unified in its opposition to excessive multiculturalism brought on by mass immigration and globalization. Lastly, the postliberal right is united in its opposition to social and moral degeneracy which generally manifests itself in opposition to the latest sexual liberation and gender theory trends sweeping across Western societies and makes it a militant opponent to the postliberal left which generally understands itself in its narrative identity as advancing the cause of civil rights liberationism that sexual and gender politics now entails and that I briefly covered above. Here the similarities stop and the differences among rightwing postliberal groups emerge which deserve our attention.
Christian postliberalism is probably the easiest of the postliberal movements on the right to understand. Originally, postliberalism in theology was a centrist movement—part of the Neo-Orthodoxy of Karl Barth and the mainstream Protestant pivot away from the failures of liberal theology in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries while keeping distance from traditionalist Baroque Christianity, especially in its Catholic and Anglo-Catholic forms. Now, however, postliberal theology has become the domain of the Christian right as the previous generation of postliberal Christians have largely died off and the remnant heirs of the Neo-Orthodox movement have largely embraced the old progressive social gospel theologies that postliberal Christianity arose to challenge in the first place. Postliberal Christianity understands the current establishment in politics, media, and academia as hostile to Christianity; that excessive immigration into historic Christian countries threatens the future existence of Christianity (especially in Europe with high levels of Islamic immigration); and that the current sexual mores of Western society are antagonistic to the Christian vision of the good life.
More importantly, Christian postliberalism asserts that human nature is transcendentally grounded in God and that humans are intrinsically spiritual or metaphysical beings and are endowed with a rational soul to know the moral law and must choose to live in accord with the moral law for true freedom and happiness. Therefore, Christian postliberalism rejects the materialist assumptions of modernity and the belief that science, technology, and economics can provide a meaningful and happy life for the human soul. Additionally, Christian postliberalism asserts—in its traditionalist manifestation—that the goodness and greatness of Western civilization lay in its historic Christian roots.
The abandonment of Christianity as a public force for good and public sense of identity has left the Western world adrift in an identity crisis. Part of the narrative identity offered in postliberal Christianity is that you are a Christian, part of an identity stretching back to the Old Testament biblical heroes and carried forward by the church fathers, medieval scholastics, and to the Protestant reformers and their posterity (for Catholics it would be the post-Reformation counter reformers). Part of your identity in Christian postliberalism is a narrative of Christian inheritance and Christian future: you belong to the communion of saints, past, present, and future.
Aesthetic conservatism, or cultural conservatism—a form of postliberal aestheticism—tends to overlap with Christian postliberalism. Many aesthetic conservatives have been, or are, Christian though it is not universally the case that this is so: one might look at Matthew Arnold as an example of an aesthetic conservative who was influenced by the cultural contours of Christianity but who was not himself a Christian. Arnold stands in contrast to T.S. Eliot or W.H. Auden, postliberal aesthetes who were also (Anglican) Christians and had their aesthetic and cultural sensitivities formed by Christianity especially of the Augustinian variety. Postliberal Christians may also find themselves allied with postliberal aesthetes on many issues pertaining to culture and the survival of culture. It is my belief, not merely as a former student of his, that Sir Roger Scruton was and remains the finest example of an aesthetic conservative of a postliberal disposition whose heterodox Anglicanism informed his aesthetic sensibilities but whose Christianity remained secondary to more salient concerns over the transcendent power of aesthetics.
To the aesthetic conservative, culture matters and culture has a transcendent nature to it because culture is an earthly embodiment of the transcendental reality of Beauty. This leads to the aesthete’s critique of liberal modernity: the scientism, materialism, and economism of liberal modernity threatens to obliterate the cultural inheritance of countries and persons. Culture, or more appropriately that Beauty which manifests itself in culture, has a transcendental grounding because Beauty is one of the three transcendentals and is the transcendental characteristic prioritized among postliberal aesthetes who believe Truth and Goodness flow into Beauty which makes Beauty the prime transcendental. More specifically to aesthetic conservatives, the culture of the West is superior to the culture of other countries and people (not all cultures are equal) and as the children and inheritors of this culture we should fight not only for its preservation but its expansion and promotion especially against the coercive and corrosive institutions and guardians of politics, media, and education who seek the destruction of Western culture. (The aesthetic conservative sees the current political, media, and educational establishment as hostile to Western culture and the achievements of Western culture.)
The identity of the postliberal aesthete draws from the Christian understanding of the communion of saints: we might call it the communion of artists. Postliberal aesthetes see themselves as part of that long unbroken genealogy of artists from Homer and Virgil through Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Tennyson, Eliot, and Tolkien, etc. The artistic soul is the soul of humanity (per the German philosopher Johann Hamann), and the artistic soul finds its nourishment in the culture of Beauty and the creation of Beauty which is manifested in the cultural artifacts of the West. Lastly, this is not a dead culture but a living culture—a culture that has spirit and invites dead and dying souls to be reborn in the water of its Beauty found in architecture, literature, music, and sacred spaces.
The final group within rightwing postliberalism that demands our attention is what some call the “Alt Right.” I take the Alt Right to mean a very specific group of dissident rightwing writers, bloggers, and activists who are united not only in their opposition to the political, media, and educational establishment alongside their opposition to mass immigration and multiculturalism, but who are also united in a very unique advocacy: race matters and (hereditarian) biology has a transcendental grounding to it. More than 70 years ago Eric Voegelin also noted this as the unique expression that gave rise to fascism and national socialism in Europe which took its strongest hold in Germany though its intellectual origins lay in late nineteenth century France: “Blood and soil as the foundations of völkisch existence; a racial core that determines the physical and mental character of the nation.”
The postliberal Alt Right tends to be hostile to Christianity, especially in its Nouvelle Droite form typified by Alain de Benoist and his call for a “re-paganization of the West” which is the more specific group within the Alt Right I am referring to by the usage of the term in this essay. The Alt Right believes, alongside Karl Marx (ironically) and Friedrich Nietzsche (celebratorily), that Christianity is the genesis of liberal capitalist democratism (Marx) and the weakness of Western man (Nietzsche) and therefore is directly culpable for the decline of Western civilization which is understood as white (pagan) civilization: the Celt, the Nord, the Greek, or the Roman.
The most energetic position that the Alt Right takes is its assertion that the white race matters and deserves preservation against the multicultural forces arrayed against it that threaten its continuation. Opposition to mass immigration and multiculturalism is the defining pillar that unites the Alt Right, for it can only be through limiting immigration into white countries that can ensure the survival of the white race which is the Alt Right’s primary concern more than the survival of Western Christianity (postliberal Christians) or the aesthetics and culture of the West (the postliberal aesthete). Like the communion of the saints in Christianity and the communion of the artists in aesthetic conservatism, the Alt Right also shares a notion of identitarian communion: the communion of the white race which is a racial solidarity and consciousness among all whites which seeks reunification with the “pagan” ancestral spirit of the Greeks, Romans, Celts, and Nords. More specifically, this communion of the white race seeks the revival of the pagan ancestral warrior spirit that was supposedly obliterated by Christianity’s rise and the victory of Christianity’s “slave morality” (this is the primary infatuation with Nietzsche among Alt Right thinkers and writers). In sum: You are more than the rational economic individual of homo economicus, you are a warrior filled with a warrior spirit seen in the soul of the Greek hoplite, the Roman legionary, the Gothic horseman, the Nordic Viking, and the medieval crusader (who embodied the last incarnation of the Nordic warrior soul).
The Alt Right would agree that human nature is metaphysical but that the metaphysical transcendence found in man is struggle and not intellectual contemplation of God (which produces peace instead of strife). This serves the Alt Right’s desire to rekindle the spark of communion with the warrior spirit of the pagan past. Alongside aesthetic conservatives, the Alt Right shares a belief in the superiority of Western (white) civilization but the aesthetic goal of the Alt Right is not a revitalization of Christianity but a re-paganization of the West: the pagan writers of the Western inheritance matter more than the Christian writers do though the Christian writers who are great are great because of their racial hereditary and not Christian beliefs (this is how white Christians can be salvaged by the Alt Right by proclaiming their genius comes from genetic inheritance and not theological beliefs, Dante matters because he’s white not because he is a Christian).
Alt Right postliberalism, then, asserts that human nature is primarily racial, that race matters and the white race matters most of all, that races are antagonistically opposed to each other through the metaphysic of conflict and struggle and the transcendental allure of the human spirit is found in agonism and not the peaceable comfort and security offered in liberal modernity (or even the intellectual love of God). Alt Right identity is tied to a sense of a racial past and future. You are a member of the communion of the white race now besieged by the non-white races. Lastly, the corrosive forces of liberal modernity seek the extirpation of the white race (the “Great Replacement” theory).
The Future is Postliberal
Liberalism is tired and worn out. As history has always shown, political movements ebb and flow before reaching an apogee from which they decline and die. The energy of the young is unmistakably postliberal. Young leftists and young rightists are almost exclusively not New Democrats or part of the Students for Liberty crowd. I, myself, am a millennial; those who are my age or younger who are not otherwise apathetic intellectually, spiritually, or politically tend to fall into one of the four postliberal groups I have hitherto described. The future is with them. The future is with us, for I count myself among the postliberals.
The decadence of liberalism is real. Its decline visible to all. Its opponents are all energized and willing to fight for its replacement. But there are also some very positive things that didn’t stem from liberal modernity but were enshrined in liberal modernity that we shouldn’t be quick to lose: freedom of religion, freedom of conscience, and the social mobility offered in education and global economics.
If postliberalism is the future, there are still some goods that emerged in liberal modernity that we should not want to haphazardly have slip away from our fingertips. We can agree that the impoverished life offered by liberal modernity needs to go, but religious freedom, freedom of conscience, and the power and importance of education must be preserved in the brave new world we are living in and moving toward. Moreover, the preservation of free speech and free expression should be safeguarded since it is the only medium by which those of us who do exist outside the cathedral of liberalism can cultivate souls and create works of Beauty and artistic resonance that attracts those souls to the Good, True, and Beautiful.
Originally appeared on VoegelinView Read More