[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]
In the preface to Why Liberalism Failed, the manuscript of which “was completed three weeks before the 2016 presidential election,” Patrick Deneen wrote that “the better course”—at least for all those persuaded by his book’s arguments about the philosophical flaws, contradictions, and corruption of modern liberalism—“lies not in any political revolution but in the patient encouragement of new forms of community that can serve as havens in our depersonalized political and economic order” (WLF, 2018, pp. xiii, xv). That perspective reflected well the constellation of localist ideas which Deneen has contributed to over the years. By seeing in liberalism an affirmation of individualism and pluralism that invariably leads to the rise of a contractarian state, an economic materialism, and an attendant technocratic elite, all of which actually undermine the demos rather than empower it, the response by anyone concerned about the flourishing of democratic communities has to be focused on the local. WLF didn’t, in my view, engage seriously enough with the broad range of republican arguments which have similarly challenged the liberal order over the decades, making some of its conclusions too easily arrived at, but the questions it implicitly raised about local democracy along the way were valuable ones, and WLF received much balanced praise for articulating a particular kind of post-“fusionism” conservative discontent (even former president Barack Obama, while disagreeing with the book’s diagnoses, was apparently a fan).
Within a year of WLF’s publication though, Deneen appears to have changed his mind about pretty much all that. Writing in the preface of the paperback edition, Deneen explained:
I now believe I was wrong to think that [the project of developing a political theory which would succeed philosophical liberalism] could take generations…. Instead of imagining a far-off and nearly inconceivable era when the slow emergence of liberalism’s alternative might become fully visible from its long-burning embers, we find ourselves in a moment when “epic theory” becomes necessary…. [I]n mere months—having seen the American political order assaulted by two parties that are in a death grip but each lacking the ability to eliminate the other, and observing the accelerating demolition of the liberal order in Europe—I now think that the moment for “epic theory” has come upon us more suddenly than we could have anticipated. Such moments probably always arrive before we think we are ready (WLF, 2019, pp. xxiii-xxiv).
The transition from “patient encouragement” to “epic theory” encapsulates well the thrust of Deneen’s new book, Regime Change: Toward a Postliberal Future (which is being officially released today). WLF was a good book, but Regime Change is a better one, and I think will be recognized as such—as well as one that will gain notoriety in a way that the earlier, more academic book mostly did not. Given Deneen’s new focus in RC, that notoriety may well be welcomed by him. Few books are actually “dangerous,” despite the paranoia which censorious activists, clerics, and politicians delight in spreading about them, but the epic—and profoundly unconservative, at least in any sense by which Edmund Burke, Michael Oakeshott, or Russell Kirk would have understood the term—reach of Deneen’s arguments absolutely crosses over into that territory.
After all, when a book written in the wake of the attack on the U.S. Capitol building on January 6, 2021, after hundreds of protestors confusedly but sincerely aimed to violently subvert the constitutional procedures of a presidential election, nonetheless speaks seriously of the need for a newer, better sort of elite to employ “raw assertion[s]” of “demotic power” to challenge American institutions, and blithely quotes Machiavelli praising “discord and division” in his Discourses on Livy, arguing (perhaps facetiously, perhaps not) that “mobs running through the streets” were actually a sign of the vitality of the Roman republic…well, “dangerous” seems to be a fit description (RC, pp. 164-165). Reading Regime Change, it is hard to avoid concluding that Deneen has run out of patience, at least when it comes to what he sees as the wreckage of our present condition. To build upon what Deneen wrote on the first anniversary of the Capitol attack, the ultimate aim of RC appears to be the development of a better, more radical elite, one that could guide the people, unlike former president Donald Trump, towards a “genuine populist revolution.”
The elites which Deneen’s epic theory invokes would be the embodiment of what he calls “aristopopulism,” an elite committed not to the often false (as Deneen effectively documents throughout the book) egalitarianism supposedly at work in the managerial liberalism so prevalent in our late capitalist moment, but rather to what he considers to be a more accurate, classical understanding of “democracy.” On his reading of Aristotle, Polybius, and Aquinas, the regime which gives greatest credence to the needs and wishes of the people as a whole is one of mixed classes, in the classical “Great Chain of Being” sense. Under such a constitutional order, a virtuous elite would wield the responsibility to govern a community through the intentional writing and enforcing of laws, while the demos would articulate over time customs and norms which would have their own quasi-governing power, one which the elites, in their virtuous wisdom, would recognize and help sustain through positive law. Deneen strongly doubts that a direct reconstruction of such an arrangement would be possible through the corrupt institutions of the Western world today, dedicated as they are, according to him, to the social reproduction our progressive culture and globalized economy. Hence the need instead to be disruptive, and possibly even violent—Deneen speaks of the necessity of “the force of a threat from the popolo”—in changing the rules of the game. As he puts it, we must employ “Machiavellian means to achieve Aristotelian ends” (pp. 167, 185).
The key philosophical assumption behind Deneen’s epic theorizing is his near-total rejection of egalitarianism as it has unfolded over the centuries of liberal modernity. Throughout the early sections of Regime Change, he uncomplicatedly stipulates as a natural fact the “ancient divide that pits the ‘few’ against the ‘many,’” a divide which he describes as “the ‘normal’ condition of politics”; it is, in his view, “an endemic political feature of the human condition” that “there is inevitable inequality in the world,” reflected in either “the ongoing presence of arbitrary social differences, or their replacement by natural inequalities due to differences of talent and self-direction” (pp. x, 7, 21). A constitutional arrangement which constructively deals with this division will not attempt to paper over its facticity with promises of equal individual rights—especially since, under finance capitalism, those promises have mostly, according to Deneen, been formulated in terms of a (in his view, presumably hopeless) educational dream of turning “’the many’ into ‘the few’” through a “notional redistribution of managerial status to every human” (pp. 37-38). Rather, a better constitutional regime would turn to “the tradition of the West itself,” which looks not to any kind of transformation through either individual development or collective action, but instead to “[c]ontinuity, balance, order, and stability, grounded in the unchanging truths knowable through human reason and also present in the Christian inheritance of the West”—a “common good conservatism,” one which requires “a virtuous people…maintained through the energies and efforts of virtuous elites” who are “oriented to supporting the basic decencies of ordinary people” (pp. 68, 124).
Deneen admits that the aristocratic-populist elites that he hopes will emerge concomitant to the disruptive, “demotic” challenges to the current order–which they, according to his theory, must simultaneously orchestrate in unspecified Machiavellian ways–wouldn’t be able to play this virtuous role immediately. But he holds out hope that, once the dominant actors in the present order have been mocked or frightened or voted (or pummeled?) into retreat, “a genuine aristoi might arise… through a kind of Aristotelian habituation in virtue” (p. 185). This new aristoi, in the midst of the ruins of a liberal order whose collapse had been accelerated through decisive action, would theoretically be capable of modeling for the people their proper role, and thus enabling an eventual return to the mixed constitution of the few and the many which the classical tradition elaborated.
The dangerous potential—and to those who share his traditionalist conservative sentiments, the dangerous appeal—of Deneen’s epic, revolutionary theory of regime change is thus pretty obvious. It has been standard for radicals of various stripes, infuriated by the economic inequality, the bureaucratic incivility, and/or the juridical injustice of so much of the liberal capitalist state as it emerged over the 20th century, to call for either a retreat from or revolt against it. The kind of “conservatism” that has historically emphasized the virtues of community (which, it must be remembered, is as often found on the left as the right) frequently opts to express its radicalism via retreat—that is, via turning towards the patient tending to of one’s own democratic, collective space, conscious of the harms which more systematic aspirations often involve. Hence the localist spirit of so many animated by these concerns, whether it be Wendell Berry’s defense of regional food systems, Bill Mckibben’s push for genuine (not corporate-subsidizing) energy independence, or a hundred other examples. But Deneen’s Regime Change, with its calls for revolutionary change, shifts away from such patient work–which, therefore, also suggests that the postliberal shift may be (as Adam Smith intuited in a recent FPR essay) a shift away from localist concerns entirely. And to my mind, that means, inevitably and frustratingly, a shift away from actual democracy as well.
Deneen has elsewhere written thoughtfully—though I also think somewhat tendentiously—about the “crisis of democracy,” asserting that the turn to a framework of moral pluralism and pragmatism in the social sciences in the 20th century resulted in an “institutionalized relativism,” which itself could only result in attacks upon the “absolutism” present in “the mass of humanity who retained conservative beliefs due to unexamined prejudice or hostility to change.” Deneen’s understanding of pluralism in this particular case could be seriously contested, but leaving that aside, just consider his focus: he sees a crisis not relevant to democratic practices and procedures, but rather pertaining to the beliefs of the demos (though not the whole people, however defined: only “subcultures” of it). Deneen’s concern is apparently with the demos, the people, as a category which holds certain beliefs, not with how (or to what degree, or even if) the people, whatever their beliefs, actually govern themselves, which is the usual meaning of “democracy”–that is, rulership by the people.
Regime Change does lay out a positive vision of the demos, defending “the wisdom of the people,” and showing how liberalism—including both the individualism which produced mass democracy and the materialism which produced post-Industrial Revolution liberal capitalism—has tended to marginalize the virtuous capacities of, and undermine the sustaining social conditions of, communities of people in the name of “progress.” (Deneen’s reading of John Stuart Mill is particularly intriguing here.) But that positive vision depends upon the persuasiveness of his affirmations regarding the source of that wisdom, and that persuasiveness is lacking. He does not deny that what he various calls “the people,” “the working class,” or “the many” are currently in bad shape, writing that “[r]eams of statistics demonstrate that they are far less likely to exhibit certain kinds of virtues related to marriage, family, work, and criminality than the ‘elites’ that they often disdain” (p. 17). But that data does not stop him from constantly hypothesizing about their traditionalist potential, speaking repeatedly of the “instinctual conservatism of the commoners,” who “tend not to view the world as fungible launching pads, but rather, one of inherited homes” (pp. x, 60). (He holds out hope that they are “potentially more numerous” than there hypothesized opposites as well—p. 159).
Repeated incantations, however, are not arguments. Millions of voters (though not a majority) supporting Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020 is hardly dispositive support for his insistence upon the immanent existence in the United States of what he curiously calls a “nonaspirant” demos: a people collectively longing for an elite to, through their governing behavior, situate and contextualize and thus perhaps validate their stable routines. As regards those routines, he waxes agrarian in depicting them: “grounded in the realities of a world of limits…in tune with the cycle of life and rhythms of seasons, tides, sun and stars” (pp. 27, 23). His repeated formulation of the masses as being perversely victimized by elites who present the “remnants of traditional belief and practice… [that inform] the worldview of the working class” as the views of society’s true oppressors (p. 28), makes it clear that (given that a slight but nonetheless real majority of even those Americans lacking a high school diploma consider the legalization of same-sex marriage to have been good for the country, in the same way that a majority of voters with lower incomes voted for Joe Biden in 2020) that the “working class” which Deneen has in mind is probably very much a “subculture” indeed.
That isn’t to deny that a liberal democratic society ought to enable subcultures to organize and collectively articulate their own communal norms (at its root, that’s what any and every “populist” movement, from the People’s Party to Occupy Wall Street, have always been about). The atomization inherent to liberal capitalism absolutely should be resisted, and there are important ways in which the organization of local and regional democratic practices and procedures, as both socialist and subsidiarian thinkers have argued, can help accomplish those ends. (It is perplexing that when it comes to the actual political organization of the demos, Deneen gives almost no thought to cities or counties or states; he is critical of what he sees as liberalism’s tendency to breakdown “the onetime solidarity of subnational communities,” but nonetheless his national conservatism basically leaps from the family and neighborhood–with a nod to the communitarian truth of Hillary Clinton’s “it takes a village” manta–to the nation-state and the international society beyond–pp. 221, 225-226).)
While even just thinking of the American demos as simply national, Deneen’s recommendations for establishing a foundation for his theorized revival of a true mixed constitution between the few and the many—such as increasing the scope of democratic representation by expanding size of the House of Representatives, or strengthening the power of labor by putting workers’ councils on the same level as corporate boards when it comes to determining company policies and wages, or dramatically mixing the American people across regional and class differences by re-instituting the draft (pp. 168-171, 173-174)—include many excellent suggestions that would promote civic strength and identity, and thus counter the less democratic elements of our current order. But the content of that civic identity—which is, today, profoundly urban and pluralistic—is simply not what Deneen imagines it to be. Nor will it be, not unless his revolutionary aspirations actually include using state power to forcefully inculcate inegalitarian attitudes upon the people, which isn’t something he ever mentions. (He does allows that, in the midst of other imagined, Machiavellian disruptions, “forms of legislation that promote public morality, and forbid its intentional corruption, should be considered,” but as during a recent debate Deneen participated in alongside Diedre McCloskey, a widely respected transgender economist, he demurred from voicing specifics as to what those forms should be—p. 181).
In the end, I think that if Deneen wants the demos to find his theory of regime change at all plausible, his articulation of it should show less uncomplicated assurance in the enduring accuracy of what Aristotle, Polybius, or Aquinas wrote about the culture of “the many” in the centuries before the rise of industrial technology, mass consumerism, and urban patterns of life made possible the movement of yeomen into a professional, specialized middle-class, and more explorations of the way that a constitutional order beyond our own would address the demands for greater democratic and socio-economic empowerment. Because such demands are there. As John Médaille observed as part of a response to Deneen years ago, “culture is downstream from breakfast,” and it was the demand for breakfast—not just the ability to obtain it, but also the ability to make decisions about how and where and with whom one should be able to obtain it—which truly gave birth to liberal modernity, far more than John Locke’s philosophical abandonment of the classical mixed constitution. Locke’s ideas, and those of subsequent liberals, arguably served the needs of those seeking breakfast quite poorly in the long-run, making it increasingly easy, over the centuries, for an individualism which prioritized efficiency over community, and progress over common sense, to warp our understanding of the democratic authority which the people came to believe should be equally shared among all breakfast-seekers. But that warping cannot be simply wiped away, much less mocked or frightened or voted (or pummeled?) into hiding by the potential threat of some angry mob.
Deneen’s epic, dangerous, anti-egalitarian theory shows great love for “community,” but it is a love which places the demos of the community on a pedestal, presenting their supposedly static traditions and routines as enacted beliefs that will inspire and guide the governing elite, but which denies them any formal ability to make decisions for themselves, or at least not any beyond what Deneen calls “the slow accumulation and sedimentation of norms and practices over time” (p. 132). Deneen has always been suspicious of overly romantic, quasi-religious idealizations of democracy, preferring instead what he once called “democratic realism.” Well, democratic realism has to include dealing with the people as they actually and presently exist, in all their busy, urban, depressing, glorious, subcultural plurality. Nothing in Regime Change suggests that Deneen places himself in the position of the East German apparatchik mocked in Bertolt Brecht’s famed poem “Die Lösung“: Would it not be easier….To dissolve the people / And elect another? Still, one hopes that he will make the effort, in subsequent writing, to make it clear that any postliberal readers who draw that unfortunately not unreasonable conclusion from his book are in the wrong.