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Who’s Afraid of Post-Liberalism?


When Does a ‘Turn’ Become a ‘Post’?

Remember the rise of postmodernism in the social sciences? I am old enough to remember living through it. The postmodern turn was one of the ways in which my undergraduate discipline—Geography—reinvented itself by making ‘space’ a metaphor or signifier. As I moved into Development Studies, postmodernity’s claws were getting into the rump of modernity’s rational optimism, declaring a post-development world of de-centred, relativised significations, cynical of or uninterested in economic growth and progress. Once sat down in my first lectureship in Politics, it was an admixture of Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard, and Baudrillard that seemed to define the boundaries of theoretical frisson amongst those who identified as critical scholars.

I did not much enjoy all of this. The postmodern turn as an intellectual project seemed deeply problematic to me for all sort of reasons. Rather than rehearsing those reasons, I want to note how strikingly postmodernism as an aspirant intellectual hegemon fell apart in spite of its ambitions for a bonfire of metanarratives. One can see the moraine of its decline across sub disciplines—in some forms of constructivism, the relativisms of decoloniality, and the long tail of Foucaldian theories of power. But the ‘turn’, signifying as it does an intellectual project, a broad revisionism, something aspiringly paradigmatic… that went down the plughole by the end of the 1990s.

I would suggest that this extremely potted intellectual history of postmodernism’s rise and fall offers something to our understanding of the current rising interest in post-liberalism. After all, they are both expressions of the same base intellectual mood. They are both historically-situated intellectual desires to find a way out of the constraining or etiolating structures of liberal modernity. They are not ‘new’ or ‘neo’; they are posts: posts that claim that an age is ending and that something else will succeed it. Even if ‘post’ might indulge some carrying forward from a withering present, it is not reformist but epochal: a historiographical flag must be posted to mark an age before and an age after. Without this, what distinguishes a ‘post’ from a reformed or renewed?


If postmodernism and postliberalism share a discomfort with liberal modernity, they are also different in important ways, and ways that mainly present post-liberalism as a more substantive intellectual project. Postliberalism is derived from a downgrading of liberalism’s core conceptual morphology: that the good political society is based on an absolute and unconditional valuing of individual rights. This downgrading is not necessarily to say that individual rights are not important; it is rather that they are not the pre-political or deduced absolute meta-value that consequently orders all else.

Postliberalism starts from a different premise: that some formulation of the common good is more important than individual rights. The common good is not (as political liberals have generally assumed) an aggregation of individual preferences socialising within a cluster of just institutions. Postliberalism orients itself around community and ethical/personal values in ways that might trump a full panoply of individual rights. The common good of a people, the deeper associative values of a religion or a community, the sovereignty of a state… these are the concept-norms that present postliberalism as a distinct political ideology.

It is clear that post-liberalism is scratching away at liberalism’s façade in significant ways, not least because liberalism most certainly is looking both shoddy and weak. Postliberalism defines a critique of laissez-faire and its erosion of social bonds; it seeks a way of thinking about politics that might rejuvenate exhausted, cynical, and disillusioned electorates; it wishes to see politics not as aggregated preferences, individual identity statements, inchoate social media debates, and celebritied cause-making but as a gradual, difficult, and vital project.

Take a Breath, then Jump

If postliberalism offers a revived political project in the interstices of a creaking liberal present, then it is easy to see how it might attract attention and perhaps some measured (and badly needed) optimism, or at least a sense of a plan. But, one can question how convincingly post-liberalism claims to release itself from liberalism as a whole. Seen as a political project, liberalism is exceptionally fungible and universal. It remains extremely difficult to think outside of liberalism. Duncan Bell’s article What is Liberalism argues that liberalism has been so central to Western modernity because it has been iteratively constructed and revised; it has drawn in other ideas and modified itself as it has travelled over time and space to such an extent that it has ‘become the metacategory of Western political discourse’. What makes the authors who write of post-liberalism believe that they have escaped the liberal blob?

We can sketch an answer to this question by considering three cardinal book-length contributions to post-liberalism’s agenda setting. Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed occupies itself mainly with tracing the ways in which liberalism’s innate ambitions cause its own decline in relation to governance, economics, education, and tech. The leitmotif in each area of concern is that a reified individualism had generated anomie, disillusion/disenchantment, and a loss of meaning. There is a lineage to this critique: it is distilled Oakeshott’s conservative critique of ‘modernity’. But in Oakeshott’s writing, slightly discomfortingly, one sees the germinal ideas of much ‘critical’ research on neoliberalism: its universalism, its intolerance of vernaculars, its identification of the individual with rational acts of purchase and employment. All of which is to say that the kinds of criticisms that serve as the basis for Deneen’s post-liberal scene setting (and this is the bulk of the book’s content) are in fact quite familiar and long-established, articulated both through Marxist and conservative political thought. Both happily cohabiting with liberalism’s longue durée.

In Edward Luce’s The Retreat of Western Liberalism big tech, global inequality, social media, and populism are all identified as morbid symptoms of an increasingly senescent liberalism. But the book ends with a rather forlorn appeal to a revived liberalism that might be the equal of the authoritarian statism of China. It evokes a mood present in similar big picture glosses on the current condition such as David Runciman’s The Handover or John Gray’s writing.

Luce and Deneen rely on a certain historiographical move which is also strongly present in Adrian Pabst’s Postliberal Politics: that we are currently in an interregnum that leads imminently to a crossroads. This couplet of historical signifiers (suspense and choice, inhale and leap) curate a set of established criticisms of liberalism into a sense of epochal expectation that is especially intense in Pabst’s book. What Pabst does more elaborately than most other post-liberal writing is establish a sense of what a postliberal direction might look like: personalism, one-nation conservatism, and ethical socialism. These ideological traditions are, Pabst argues, not a rejection of liberalism but a way through the impasses, a choice of road at the junction. A way beyond what he calls ultraliberalism.

Liberalism’s Sinews: Capital and Dirt

There are two important limitations in these post-liberal books: firstly the exaggerated novelty of their critiques of liberalism and secondly the indistinctly grey sketches of a communitarian or value-thick polity that they offer up. The critique of liberalism seems rather weak and the alternative to it equally so.

Postliberals do not locate their critique of liberalism within a theory of capitalism. This is an analytical choice and, on its own terms, that is fine. Lots of people write about modernity, liberalism, and the Enlightenment and do not feel obliged to engage a theory of capitalism. The problem here, however, is that liberalism is historically deeply insinuated into the rise of Western and global capitalism and, in spite of its recent extreme travails, capitalism shows no signs of going anywhere. What, then, of a revived local livelihood filled with vernacular virtue? Do these communities emerge singularly and then reside within a world dominated by the oligarchic and financialised leviathans of capital, remorselessly remaking the world for their own purposes?

Capitalism is extremely resilient, and it flatters current postliberal thinking to imagine that it might affect it in any way at all. It is quite common to read postliberal commentary in which liberalism’s current ongoing crisis is characterised as the worst since the Great Depression. True, but surely the lesson here is not of interregna and crossroads but rather how durable the sinews of capitalism are. Most of the West—especially America—experienced crushing economic penury and a deep disillusion with liberal politics (consider Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath as a narrative on the lived experience of this disillusion). And yet, capitalism recovered and within fifteen years after the end of the Second World War prevailed to a degree that is historically incomparable. Bearing in mind that so much of the postliberal discomfiture with liberalism—tech oligarchies, inequality, a reified homo economicus—are obviously features of a capitalism, postliberals have not properly identified how their prospective polities actually address the problems they claim will end an epoch.

Secondly, each book seems unable to escape liberalism’s own problematique. Liberalism has never been a fully resolved tradition of political thought. In fact, the doubting questions it asks of itself have been deeply generative of its own energies. Liberal thinkers have often vexed themselves over the principles and practices that allow diverse people to live within the same polity in a rights-congruent fashion. They have debated the rights and wrongs of projecting liberal norms across the globe, trying to reconcile their own advocacies of imperialism with their understanding of a universal respect for individual rights. They have elaborated different analyses of justice and inequality, of rights and multiculturalism, of freedom, harm, and tolerance, of laissez-faire and citizenship.

In fact, a very salient feature in liberalism’s entire archive can be reasonably characterised as self-doubt and anxiety as much as bombastic procrusteanism. Imperial doubt, laissez-faire doubt, equality doubt, multicultural doubt… these are the productive agonies of liberalism. This trait is not analysed in the postliberal literature which is more concerned with liberalism’s ailing hegemony and recent protracted crisis. As a result, its own visions of a postliberal politics beg similar questions to those that have driven liberal political thought. In what ways might stronger national sovereignties, faith-based communities, or ‘left on the economy’ governments manage the tensions that they generate between individual liberties, incommensurate social identities, and authoritative rule? The answers to these kinds of questions are either unclear or borrowed from liberalism itself. An integral state is not a state that will be intolerant to non-Catholics; a culturally-rich and bounded community cannot just expel or punish anyone who violates a code of behaviour because there are some thin universals or some high-class constitutional constraints, or some notion of deliberation between nations or communities will ensure that we can live together in a peaceable world of sovereign mutual respect. Postliberalism has not identified a way to surpass the pedestrian woes of liberalism and one wonders if these questions of difference, order, and equality are yet to sneak up on postliberals should they wish to adumbrate their political models in finer grain.

The Realities of the Post-Liberal

Towards the end of his book, Deneen says that historical examples of post-liberalism have hardly been worth advocating. Obviously, Fascism and Stalinist Communism have no supporters amongst serious political thinkers. For liberals it is easy to condemn fascism and communism: they both repress and deny people’s basic rights. But, if you’re a post-liberal, how do you oppose these political forms in ways that are not simply liberal? Franco’s Spain deeply valued an ideal of Spanish rural familyhood, organic Catholic virtue, social order and stability. Worth learning from? After all, it came after a century of liberalism, a liberalism that had palpably failed and created the conditions for Franco’s coup. What of the rebellions against British colonial ‘Cape’ liberalism in South Africa by Afrikaners who sought to establish their own sovereignties to nurture family, local attachments to the land, religious piety, and cultural authenticity?

It is not enough to ignore all historic projects of post-liberalism on the grounds that they do not fit with one’s projections of communitarian personhood. Cases like Spain and South Africa are clearly detestable and easily rejected for a liberal but more challenging for postliberals. They were both profoundly based in reaffirmations of culture, familyhood, and local autonomy. This leaves postliberals faced with unlikeable historical cases of postliberalism about which most condemnations have drawn on liberal value judgements and within which values that postliberals are open to are prominent. Perhaps a postliberal response would be to argue that what matters is the near-future and how we might escape liberalism’s decline. In this case, there is little to be gained from reflecting on postliberalisms that took place generations ago and in very different times. Perhaps so, although this is not a clincher point. We have moments of post-liberalism in the present and near-present which are more germane for their historical proximity.

Real and Present Post-Liberalism

From the early 1990s to the late 2000s, most sub-Saharan African countries adopted multi-party constitutions, removed heavy regulatory oversights on their economies, legalised civil society organisations, and opened up their economies to foreign investment and finance. Some legislated new land tenure systems based in private ownership (rather than state of ‘customary’ land tenure); some created export processing zones; some brought private companies into their governance: to manage customs, generate financial management models, train officials; new forms of contracting gave companies the power to manage water and road infrastructures. And so on. Veritably, a liberal double-decade.

This is now gone. Certainly, advocates for liberalism still mistake form for substance: taking continued multi-party elections or new business deals as part of the onward march of liberalism’s transformative project. But, for the majority of countries, any detailed review of a country’s politics reveals deep forms of subterfuge at play. Elections have been managed to reproduce party-states very effectively, even returning previous ‘strong men’ who were outstared during the ‘third wave’ of democracy. Businesses—both connected to ruling political elites and also international capital—have established oligopolistic niches in economies, niches constantly associated with cronyism, corruption, and even coercion. And, gradually, there appears to be a rejection of the liberalised economy and the multi-party constitution. In some West African countries, militaries have seized power. In some East African countries, incumbent presidents have effectively removed any meaningful contestation to their power and they have remained permanently elected over decades. The notion that a ‘free economy’ is a developmental one is no longer common sense. The continent’s most ambitious development strategies are now based in innovative forms of nationalism, populism, and state involvement.

There is a great deal more one could explore in Africa’s diverse and energetic political fluidity. But it remains a strong generalisation to say that the post-liberal present is very much manifested in this region. African politics signals some concrete political trends that might be extrapolated and fed into discussions of post-liberalism’s prospects. These are as follows.

  • Governance is likely to become increasingly ‘productively inconsistent’. That is to say, ruling elites are unlikely to abandon liberalism as much as see it as a component in a repertoire of authority. Rights, elections, media freedom, competition… all of these will lose their priority and become contingent and strategically deployed. They will cease to be the principles upon which politics is practiced and become ‘dirty’: means to specific ends, ways to legitimise immediate and contingent goals, or forms of deception.
  • Other forms of governance will strengthen, and this strengthening will depend crucially on these forms’ ability to cohabit with rump liberal practices. This is the essential premise of recent research into ‘neoliberal authoritarianism’. This will make politics generally less stable and incoherent. But, this will not necessarily be a sign that politics is in decline. Indeed, it might be that incoherence, radical contingency, and changeability, dressed partially in a liberal language as well as a bricolage of other ideological significations, can be both effective and, in a sense, stable.
  • The use of coercion and the repression of open political organisation and expression will intensify. The techniques through which this is realised do not necessarily resemble the open and constant policing of society but rather express ‘moments of exception’ which seem sporadic in the short term but are repeated frequently enough to generate an oppressive field of power.
  • The notion that the purpose of government is to assure the conditions for economic growth and general well-being will radically deplete into a set of brief liturgical statements which neither politicians nor populations believe. Instead, the notion of progress—emaciated and hollow—will articulate to increasingly ‘thick’ notions of national security, order, and discipline.
  • Territoriality becomes increasingly politicised. Sovereign states are more saliently composed of ‘zones’, some defined as lawless, some as economically marginal, some as ‘bubbles’ of wealth, some as quasi-extraterritorial. This political economy of parcellisation will likely undermine the social identity of citizenship, but it is not self-evident that this will concern governing elites who will have far less of a concern with commonwealth and more interest in how inequalities might be deployed as strategies to govern in the contingent and increasingly authoritarian fashion. Being nimble, getting ahead quickly, developing cliques across the government-business boundary, accepting and indeed flourishing under uncertainty… these are the attitudes of the post-liberal political elite. More akin to Machiavelli’s fox, or what in some African polities is dubbed the ‘clever thief’.

Of course, the argument here is not ‘Africa is the world’s future’. There are many important distinctions to Africa’s historical experience. One strong facet of the broadly post-liberal genre focuses on ‘neo feudal’ or oligopolistic power exercised by ‘big tech’, but—although this is not absent from sub Saharan Africa—it is far less developed than it is in Western or Chinese heavily-surveilled societies. Nor have Western societies generally experienced the partial loss of sovereignty that some Sahelian states have over the last decade. The point is simply that—if one wishes realistically to deprovincialize our understanding of politics—post-liberalism’s concrete prospects should be drawn from parts of the world in which liberalism’s travails have been most starkly visible.

In this light, at least for now, postliberalism appears to signal less of a ‘post’ and more of a layering. Lived history is often like this, but the import of historical sedimentation can be profound. Governance is becoming less holistic and coherent not because we are in an interregnum but rather because liberalism, populism, communitarianism and other less well-figured political discourses are increasingly recombinant. They can be combined and remixed as expressions of hybrid and partially-coherent and stable modes of rule that political elites deploy. A world of foxes: clever thieves talking rights whilst suppressing them, fretting security whilst sabre rattling, stressing the value of commonwealth whilst contracting it out to venal financialised capital. For now, the ability of postliberalism to pose a distinct and convincing way of moving beyond this state of affairs is yet to be seen.