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Since the French Revolution, the West has been cursed by a political framing that operates along an axis. At one end we have the Left, the people demanding radical change to liberate humanity in some way. At the other end is the Right, the people not just opposed to change, but the defenders of the natural order. Both ends see the other as the bad guy in the relationship. For over two centuries, all political movements have been forced to pick a spot on the axis.
This often leads to some ridiculous alliances. Libertarians are supposed to be the polar opposite of communists. Hitler is the polar opposite of Stalin, which then puts Hitler in the libertarian camp. This causes those sympathetic to libertarianism to claim that Hitler was actually a leftist. After all, he was a socialist! While this is idiotic, it does underscore the problem with the Right-Left political axis. It fails as a way to describe politics over a long period of time.
It also precludes right-wing radicalism. By making change a left-wing phenomenon, it means the right-wing must always be for stasis. This is popular with the Left, as it lets them pretend to be the good guys, but it also turns the other side into mindless reactionaries with no reason to oppose change. It is also wrong in that the Right, in all of its forms, does not oppose change. What the Right opposes is experimentation that treats institutions as arbitrary objects.
There is a bigger problem with the Left-Right political axis. It eliminates the possibility for right-wing radicalism. If the only people who can contemplate a radical reordering are those who embrace change, then the logic of the political scale says that it is impossible for right-wing people to imagine radical change. Yet we know that people on the Right, however defined at the time, often want radical change. It may simply be a rollback of prior change, but it is still change.
For example, most people defined as right-wing in the current year would like to see the sexual revolution rolled back at least forty years. A growing cohort thinks it is necessary to roll things back to the 1950’s. A small, but growing portion of the right wonder if we should roll it all back to the very beginning. If a right-wing Joe Biden comes to power and rolls back the sexual revolution, even if it is just to the 1980’s, most people would see that as a radical change in the culture.
In fairness, you could call these people reactionaries. Granted, their reactions are incredibly slow, taking at least a generation to form, but strictly speaking they want to return to some point in the past, not break with it. Left-wing radicals imagine themselves making a clean break with the past and creating something new. The fact that it is not new in the least is another matter. One side wants to break from the past while the other side wants to return to what it imagines is the past.
That seems to solve the problem, but what about the people who think we must make a break with liberalism in order to save Western people? These are not people seeking a return to some point in the past. Some joke about the return of monarchy and feudalism, but they are not serious about it. Instead, they see the future as a clean break with liberal political traditions. The people now calling themselves post-liberal think we must produce something new to replace liberalism.
Adrian Vermeule, the Harvard scholar, and champion of common good conservatism is not entirely clear about the details of his post-liberal order, but he is quite clear in his rejection of liberalism. Patrick Deneen, who is a Notre Dame political science professor, has a new book in which he argues for overthrowing the liberal order and replacing it with a dictatorship of working-class, by which he means the people who actually work and sustain the culture.
Read what these post-liberals have to say about what we would consider to be the status quo and they certainly sound like radicals. Unlike the standard model of radicalism, they are not challenging the human condition. There is no post-liberal man in their conception of the future, other than to argue that mankind will be free of the utopian claims that lie within the liberal order. Mankind will be liberated from the relentless coercion of its liberators.
Dissidents, of course, seek something similar. The main difference is that the Dissident Right is willing to address the demographic issue. To be on the Dissident Right is to wrestle with the question of what kind of society is possible with the demographics we will have in the not-too-distant future? More important, are the possible options tolerable and if not, what must come next? Like the post-liberals, the Dissident Right is ready to leave the old liberal order in the past.
For all the usual reasons, the dissidents and post-liberals get called fascist by the people who claim to be on the Left. It is proof that the universe has a sense of humor that the most dogmatic defenders of the status quo and the holders of power are the people who claim to be on the side of revolutionary change. In the modern age, the antifascists are sponsored by major corporations, who are in a close partnership with government and the centers of cultural production.
Putting that aside, if we broaden the definition of the term “liberalism” to include all Western thought since the late Middle Ages, then we are left with a universe that includes Marxism, libertarianism, liberal democracy, anarchism, fascism and all the combinations of these ideologies. To one degree or another, all of them imagine a world where mankind is freed from the human condition. What we now call liberalism is the final form of this long ideological struggle.
This gets to a truth about the modern world and its opponents. That political axis that has been with us since the French Revolution is increasingly incoherent because it assumes something that is not true. It assumes that ideology is a constant of the universe and therefore politics is a war between competing ideologies. In reality, ideology is a novelty. For most of human history, the moral questions were decided by religion, not by men with utopian schemes.
What the incoherence of that old political axis may be telling us is that we are reaching the end of the ideological age. What the post-liberals are doing, even if most do not realize it, is challenging the moral claims of liberalism. It is not an accident that the champions of post-liberalism are overtly religion. Both Deneen and Vermeule are traditional Catholics. Their post-liberal order assumes the moral questions have been answered by a revived traditional church.
The signs of the post-ideological age are most evident on the global stage. The last ideological state is at war with Russia because Russia rejects liberalism. The Russians are happy to borrow from the West but wish to remain Russian. The West is preparing to attack China for similar reasons. China’s capitalism with “Chinese characteristics” is unacceptable to the West. Soon, the rest of the world will join the enemies list for the crime of rejecting the liberal moral order.
For over two centuries, the West has been defined by that political axis that was born out of the French Revolution. What most people think of as the West is that long ideological struggle that has given us what we call liberal democracy. With the end of the Cold War, the struggle was over and liberal democracy won. In reality, the Cold War was the penultimate struggle of a dying age. What was born with that political axis will die with the final rejection of it.
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