Dubuque, IA. I suspect most critics will say that the problem with Patrick Deneen’s new book is that it’s just too radical. I suspect I myself would have said so, just a few years back. These days, I wonder if it’s not radical enough.
That’s the radical part of me talking. The radical part of me thinks the argument in Regime Change doesn’t add up to real change. My radical side wants more than the replacement of one elite by another, which is what Deneen wants. My radical side thinks the current elites and their bad ideas aren’t the real source of what ails us, and that to make real change, we’d have to get to the root, the radix, of our discontents.
But I am large; I contain multitudes. Which is obnoxious, I know (for you and me both!). Because in addition to my radical side I’ve got a conservative one, and my conservative side agrees that Deneen’s book is too radical. The conservative part of me thinks Deneen has chosen the Boromir Option, and I’m more of Frodo Guy. I don’t think you can use the ring for good. I think using the ring is what makes you bad.
Not that I think Deneen is one of the bad guys. A lot of the critics are going to say so—and again, I myself might have joined that chorus, back when I was a liberal in good standing. But things change, and so do people, along with their ideas. Other critics will complain about the way Deneen’s ideas seem to have changed, shifting from localism toward nationalism. I’m more of a localist than a nationalist, but I can see good arguments on both sides. And I don’t see Deneen ditching the local, exactly. I think he sees the nation as the context in which local communities can thrive. “‘Localism’ is easily destroyed in a globalized system but can flourish if protected under an umbrella of public policy,” as he puts it (182). Of course, that sounds good in theory—let a thousand flowers bloom—but seems a lot harder in practice. Anyway, I don’t begrudge Deneen for changing his mind in response to circumstances. The past few years have changed a lot of minds, in a lot of directions. Like I said, I used to be a good liberal.
Are the good liberals the bad guys now? Deneen thinks so, and the radical in me wants to agree. The good liberals seem pretty gung-ho for censorship, imperialism, Big Pharma, and Judith Butler, among other cartoonishly evil things. The radical in me also appreciates that Deneen includes among these good liberals not only the faux-radical Butlers but also the faux-conservative Friedmans. He thinks the wokesters and the free marketeers are two sides of the same counterfeit coin, fake enemies conspiring to disguise (from themselves, especially) the pincer movement (as Deneen puts it in this old FPR piece) by which they squeeze the common folk between the rock of the State and the hard place of the Market, all for the sake of progress, which is they god they both serve, despite their vaunted atheism or supposed Christianity. They serve this god because it rewards them with power: together, the good liberals of Right and Left comprise our ruling class, a revolting elite that believes in nothing but moving fast and breaking things, ostensibly because they want to produce a better world, but really because they want to produce the kind of world where they’re on top. And what an ingenious ideological sleight of hand keeps them on top. Whatever they break, they call “oppression,” which makes them the liberators! This is a “genuinely new form of elite governance,” in which “the powerless are denounced as oppressors and the powerful . . . in turn commend themselves as victims” (40).
So far, so good, in my view. I am willing to accept Deneen’s Laschian account of our ruling class, not least because recent events have made it so hard to dispute. We have all seen how “leading economic actors have increasingly exercised hard, direct power in order to advance and effect cultural change. The two sides of liberalism . . . . economic and social libertarianism—are revealed increasingly to be identical, monolithic, and eager to deploy power in the name of enforcing individual expressivism” (54). But now my radical side raises its question.
Regime Change has a simple structure. It lays out the problem, offers a solution, and (refreshingly) makes some concrete proposals for how to get from the problem to the solution. The problem is the current regime, and the solution is to replace it. But what does it mean, in practice, to “replace” it? Here is Deneen’s program: “a peaceful but vigorous overthrow of a corrupt and corrupting liberal ruling class and the creation of a postliberal order in which existing political forms can remain in place, as long as a fundamentally different ethos informs those institutions and the personnel who populate key offices and positions. While superficially the same political order, the replacement of rule by a progressive elite by a regime ordered to the common good through a ‘mixed constitution’ will constitute a genuine regime change” (xiv).
Will it, though? Is our problem really just that people with bad ideas are in charge? I hope that’s not unfair to Deneen’s argument, but in the end it really did seem to come down to that. Maybe he’d say that’s what it comes down to in real life, too: who’s in charge, and what they care about. After all, the first and perhaps the only political question is: who rules? But I wonder if it’s really enough to inform the institutions with a “different ethos,” or whether we need a more radical reformation of the institutions themselves.
In the passage above, Deneen is talking about political institutions, and I am not suggesting that we need a “radical reformation” of the American system of government itself. Indeed, Deneen himself proposes serious reforms to government institutions, such as expanding the size of the House of Representatives. And obviously if there are different people in charge of the institutions, then presumably those people would make a lot of reforms, some of which might even be radical. So I’m not saying that Deneen’s argument would leave the structure of the institutions untouched, even if the phrasing in that passage seems to suggest it.
Rather, I want to draw attention to what Deneen himself correctly notes, which is that “[a]ctual control of political institutions is adjacent to this power [of the ruling class], and where democratic resistance is encountered, it meets this new hegemony on an uneven battlefield” (54). The ruling class—the problem—does not necessarily control the institutions of government. Rather, they control what New Right types like to call “the Cathedral”—the ideologically uniform combine of media, professions, bureaucracies, universities, agencies, NGOs, woke corporations, and the like. If the solution is to replace this ruling class with a better one, it would seem necessary to replace them not only or even primarily in the halls of official power, but also or maybe especially in the chancel. Do we need regime change not so much in D.C. as in Hollywood, Silicon Valley, Wall Street, and Harvard Yard?
Or maybe Deneen’s idea is that if the right people gain control of government, they can break up the Cathedral. Some of his proposals—such as instituting a mandatory year of military or civil service, or making admission into the Ivy’s dependent on a lottery—might at least shake the Cathedral. Or they might just be a matter of changing its drapes. It is not completely clear to me. But my sense is that Regime Change is calling for something like a Gramscian “long march through the institutions,” only with the New Right instead of the old New Left leading the charge and filling the posts (“While the postliberal order will cut across current political parties, its current best hope is the ‘new right’” (xiv).) If that is the case, if I am reading Deneen rightly, then the radical in me wants to point out what happened to the New Left. The institutions ate them. They marched in singing and they never came out. They’re still there now, collecting their salaries, circling their wagons, and pretending to advance their radical ideas while advancing mainly their institutional prerogatives.
The radical in me says that our problem is not so much the people as it is the institutions themselves. Alana Newhouse says that “the real debate today isn’t between the left and right. It’s between those invested in our current institutions, and those who want to build anew,” and I agree. When it comes to the big, mainstream institutions, the Cathedral institutions (as opposed to small local ones), I tend to take the side of the “brokenists,” the ones who say it’s too late (and maybe it always was). A lot of his readers are going to accuse Deneen of wanting to break things that are worth saving. I’m suggesting he might be making the opposite mistake: trying to save things that are broken by investing them with a new spirit. What reason do we have to think it can work?
But I’m willing to be convinced. Now, I want to move over to my conservative side. Of course, you’ll see by now that I am not so large and multitudinous after all: my “conservative” question is going to be pretty consistent with the “radical” question I just raised.
They say a conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged, while a liberal is a conservative who’s been to jail. I always wondered whether this had any tactical implications. If they want to win some hearts and minds, maybe conservatives should take to the streets and mug a few liberals. Although I guess if they get caught and sent to prison, they’d turn into liberals, and then we’d be right back where we started. If all the players switch teams, nothing really changes, does it?
Of course, most conservatives have never been mugged. After all, unless you live in one of those post-apocalyptic liberal-run cities I keep hearing about, mugging is pretty rare. So if you’re conservative it’s more likely for some other reason. I’ve tended to prefer Oakeshott’s explanation, which is that being conservative is more of a disposition than an ideology (an anti-ideological disposition, even). But I’ve lately come to reconsider a second explanation, one more often offered by conservativism’s enemies than by its friends. This is the idea that the essence of conservatism is an acceptance of hierarchy.
Corey Robin, for example, thinks that conservatism is always a defense of hierarchy against movements for equality. It is essentially and not accidentally reactionary. To be “conservative” is not to rest assured of the permanent things; it is to gesture irritably at anyone who shows that those “permanent things” are actually just some temporary arrangements that happen to benefit those at the top—impermanent things that can and should be changed. “Conservatism is about power besieged and power protected. It is an activist doctrine for an activist time. It waxes in response to movements from below and wanes in response to their disappearance” (Robin, The Reactionary Mind, p. 28).
Note that for Robin, conservatism is an acceptance not of “hierarchy” in the abstract but of the current hierarchy, or the one recently deposed. Now Robin is a socialist; he believes that “inequality and social hierarchy are not natural phenomena but human creations” (Reactionary Mind, p. 53), and that to grasp this truth is to understand that humans could also create an equal, non-hierarchical society. Crucially, Robin’s reactionary conservatives no longer believe that hierarchy is natural and therefore inevitable. They do not accept hierarchy as a “fact.” The revolution teaches them that hierarchy can be “uncreated,” which means it can and must be re-created. They know now that they must make it a fact. Of course they will say it is natural and inevitable, but that is rhetoric, not conviction. It is “ideology,” in the Marxist sense.
It is clear what Robin would say about Deneen’s argument in Regime Change. It is also clear what Deneen would say about Robin’s argument, or rather what he does say, on page 136: “The proper debate between Marxists and conservatives is not over which approach is genuinely egalitarian (since neither is), but to what popular end an elite will inevitably govern.” A Marxist revolutionary elite (temporary in theory, permanent in fact) will govern toward the end of “progress,” which the Marxist thinks the people want, and Deneen thinks they don’t want; a conservative elite will govern toward the end of stability, which is what the people actually want (even if they’re willing to destabilize things to get it).
This is an old and weary debate (one might even suggest it is “permanent”). But I think that at least for the FPR audience—which includes people of several different flavors—this debate invites us to grapple with the fundamental political questions Deneen’s book raises. I mean the questions that tell you straight up whether you’re a conservative or a liberal or a socialist or an anarchist or whatever. The questions that finally divide people who might otherwise agree: like us. So how about it, dear reader: do you believe (with Deneen) that some kind of elite is inevitable, and that the important thing is therefore to make them an elite that serves the common good rather than themselves, by providing the stability that benefits the common people? Or do you believe (with Robin) that this very belief in the inevitability of the elite, whether cynically preached or sincerely believed, is how any elite gains and keeps power, for their own benefit and not the people’s?
Of course Deneen’s claim is more sophisticated than “hierarchy happens, gotta live with it.” His argument is not just about who should rule; it’s also about who does rule, right now, and why they’re not the ones who should. And Deneen’s claim is that the current elite rule by inverting the subterfuge that conservatives are alleged to practice. Robin’s conservatives pretend hierarchy is natural, in order to hide the fact that they set it up to empower themselves. Deneen’s liberals pretend that hierarchy is unnatural, in order to hide the fact that they gain power from tearing it down. If hierarchy is socially constructed, and freedom comes from deconstructing it, then power flows to the deconstructors, and hierarchy is established by rejecting it. Of course, this shows that the conservatives were right all along.
For the conservative, the question is not whether there will be an elite, but whether it will be a good one. Deneen’s argument is that the current elite is a bad one precisely because they rule by promising “progress” (which is just the deconstruction of all natural limits). Deneen’s conservatism is not a response to movements from below; it is a response to movements from above. It is a populist response to a progressive elite. It is a revolt against the revolting elite.
Once again, so far so good. I tend to agree that some kind of hierarchy is inevitable, and that the question is how to make it a good one. I guess that makes me a conservative. But now let me raise my conservative objection.
Regime Change is about reallocating power. Deneen is very forthright about this: indeed, part of the argument is that the worst kind of elite (our elite) is the one that is not forthright about the power it has. Also, the most important contribution this book makes is its attempt to recover for contemporary use the classical theory of the “mixed regime,” one in which an elite “few” who share (and give voice to) the conservative values of the “many” governs with a view to the common good of all, by establishing the conditions of stability and continuity in which the people thrive, while the people hold the elite accountable and chasten their tendency toward self-aggrandizement. So Deneen is not after power for its own sake, or rather for the sake of the new ruling class he envisions (of course, revolutionaries never are!)
But he is after power: both the power to install the new elite, and the power that the new elite will wield. The power to install the new elite will come from the people, if their populist energies can be guided through the smashing of the current regime toward the creation of the new one. The power that the new elite will wield will come from the existing institutions, as we have seen. I have raised my radical question about the “long march” project. My conservative question is about the idea that the energy for the long march can and should come from “an elite cadre skilled at directing and elevating popular sentiments” (xvi).
Maybe I am just too much of an elitist—too much of a conservative!—but I worry about the “sentiments” in question. Can they really be “elevated”? I think Deneen sees the people as the repository of tradition—inarticulate and inconsistent, shaken and weakened by decades or centuries of “progress,” but sources of hope nonetheless. He acknowledges their vices and sometimes entertains a “both-sides” comparison with the liberal elite in which the people do not necessarily come out as the more virtuous party. But in the end, they are for Deneen where tradition survives. It is the people who actually want the stability and continuity that a better elite can provide.
Maybe. Or maybe Jon Askonas has it right. There is no more tradition. Technology killed it. Technology—what for Marx was “the true revolutionary principle,” and something Deneen barely mentions in Regime Change. As Askonas puts it: “When you descend from lofty rhetoric about ‘Traditions’ and ‘Values,’ it becomes apparent that a huge number of the actual practices and social institutions which built those virtues have disintegrated, not because of Progressivism or Socialism but because of the new environment and political economy generated by technology.” For Askonas, failing to realize this is “why conservatism failed.”
If there is no more tradition, if not only the liberal elites but the “conservative” people have had their souls hollowed out not by bad ideas but by bad technology and bad political economy, then the attempt to “direct and elevate popular sentiment” might have to be something closer to “manipulation.” But this is what the current elite do. The new elite would do it for good, of course, rather than for evil. But that’s the Boromir Option. And I’m a conservative—a conservative about means, as well as about ends. I think that’s what makes you a conservative. I don’t think you can use the ring. You’d just be switching teams.
So: the radical in me wonders if Deneen is too conservative: his otherwise radical argument seems to conserve the structures—the institutions and the technologies (and institutions are just “social technologies”)—that in my view are the deeper source of our troubles. And the conservative in me wonders if Deneen is too radical: his otherwise conservative argument embraces “Machiavellian means toward Aristotelian ends,” which seems to undermine the conservative disposition to value proper method as much as right aim.
Of course “radicals” and “conservatives,” just like wokesters and free marketeers, are two sides of the same coin. What is more radical, and more conservative, than to cast the ring into the fire? That would be a real “regime change,” would it not? Isn’t that what it would take to enable us to journey back toward the Shire?