As the realignment of British politics continues to unfold, a new values divide between progressives and conservatives is replacing the old left-right axis, opening up a new battleground of political thought. There are many propositions competing for attention, but post-liberalism has emerged as particularly influential in reshaping British and Western politics. But what does the term mean, where does it come from and how Christian is it? We are most grateful to Professor Adrian Pabst for addressing these questions and showing us why post-liberalism addresses things that matter to most people: family, place, work, relationships and belonging.
When the MP Danny Kruger said in his maiden speech in the House of Commons that ‘our country is rooted in Christianity, our liberties derive from the Christian idea of absolute human dignity’, the journalist Tim Stanley commented that this marked ‘the arrival of a new politics of valuing the old – Christianity, tradition, the desire to belong and to root the individual in the “places that are theirs”. The post-liberal moment is now’. The day of the speech was 29 January 2020: Britain would formally leave the EU two days later. Whatever side people had been on, Brexit marked a time of potential renewal after forty years of economic and social liberalisation that had left the country more unequal and divided.
Why post-liberalism? And how does it relate to Christianity?
Before I go any further, I want to address what is meant by the term ‘liberalism’. It is often the case that people unfamiliar with political jargon perceive ‘liberalism’ to be by nature benign, and so the logical instinct is to regard anything that critiques it as somehow illiberal or even antiliberal. However, liberalism has a variety of forms. Some liberal traditions were shaped by Christianity, including the constitutionalist liberalism of Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville who believed that faith and religious practice temper the human quest for absolute power. But other liberal traditions have departed from older liberal ideals of tolerance, fair play and generosity by putting the focus on the individual, private property and utility-maximisation.
Even the classical liberalism of Locke and Kant championed freedom without social solidarity. Then there is the priority given to the individual whose sovereign will is underwritten by the collective power of the state to the detriment of civic associations – a strand in liberal thinking that we can trace back to Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Not to mention the secular liberalism that promotes a strangely scientistic faith in a better future underpinned by an anti-religious metaphysics of progress, which is developed by Auguste Comte and J. S. Mill.
Common to these strands in liberal thinking is a relentless individualism that ends up abolishing the dignity of the person, fundamental freedoms and rights. In other words, even older traditions of liberalism contain the seeds of liberal self-erosion and a slide back into an illiberal ‘state of nature’ that Hobbes captured well when he spoke about ‘the war of all against all’ (bellum omnium contra omnes) and life that is ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’. For all its achievements, liberalism did not invent freedom and has no monopoly on the rule of law or democracy, all of which are ideas and practices bequeathed to us from Antiquity and the Middle Ages.
I will return to the best traditions of the West and how they are indebted to Christianity. For now, it is worth saying that since its emergence in the 1990s, post-liberalism has developed into a complex current of ideas that tries to identify the errors and excesses of what we might call ‘contemporary liberalism.’ By that I mean the social liberalism since the 1960s and the economic liberalism since the 1980s (sometimes referred to as ‘neoliberal economics’), both of which rest on the idea of individual emancipation – ‘freedom’ from the constraints of family, community, country, history and even nature. Together these two forms of contemporary liberalism have colluded to produce a politics of the global rather than the national and local, a politics of abstract utopia rather than place which people can call home, and a politics of individualised identity rather than shared belonging.
Underpinning this abstraction from reality is a blind belief in the emancipatory power of technology accompanied by an anti-human tendency, and the conviction that the arc of history inevitably bends in the direction of progress. Being on the ‘right side of history’, as liberals tend to assume they are, reflects a kind of political messianism notable for its intolerance of self-doubt.
By contrast, post-liberalism is at once more realistic and more idealistic. It recognises just how contingent history is, while also accentuating the potential for agency – our human ability to shape the world around us. Agency flows from human imagination, creativity, ingenuity, and labour, which – as Christianity teaches us – are gifts that we receive rather than things we will into reality based on our human volition. The post-liberal moment is about recovering agency and dignity against the deterministic logic lurking behind contemporary liberalism.
Errors and excesses of liberalism
Among the errors and excesses of contemporary liberal ideology are individualism, a growing concentration of wealth, a relentless centralisation of power, as well as the merciless commodification of both nature and life. These are just some of the negative effects that accompany the gains of liberal liberty, which conceives of freedom as an absence of constraints on choice, except for the law and private conscience.
Liberty so defined liberates individual autonomy from any familial, communal or natural limits on desire. The human will, whether of an individual person or of a sovereign state, is elevated into an absolute principle that decides what is right and arbitrates any clash of rights or freedoms. Yet behind this absolutism lurks what Pope Benedict XVI called prophetically
‘a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires’.
Of course, liberalism has not been all bad. Liberalisation has provided positive gains. We have seen a dramatic reduction of discrimination against minorities and greater tolerance of ethnic and cultural diversity. Take the vexed question of national identity. According to a poll conducted by the think tank British Future, 77 per cent of white people in England agree that Englishness is open to all ethnic groups and almost 70 per cent of ethnic minority people agree with this. A residual hard core 10 per cent of whites still believe that Englishness should be the preserve of white people, demonstrating both the progress already achieved but also the racism that remains.
The England manager Gareth Southgate, in his much-vaunted Letter to England, made the point that the national football team represents a country that is as diverse as it is tolerant, is politically polarised, but on questions of sport and patriotic fervour, is remarkably unified. The unifying factor of national identity in general, and support for the nation’s football team in particular, is that everyone can share in the pride as well as the disappointment. The memories of the Euro 2021 tournament will endure even as the sense of heartbreak of losing on penalties will linger.
Liberalism has also generated important economic gains – from the Industrial Revolution to free trade, and from the circulation of capital to the creation of jobs based on research and development. But liberalisation ends up exacerbating economic inequality, combined with the commodification of labour, land, and life. Neither right-wing ‘trickle-down’ economics nor left-wing state redistribution of income can tackle deep disparities of wealth and power or uphold the dignity of labour on which a more mutually beneficial economy depends.
Post-liberalism embraces the positive gains of liberal liberty while offering an honest appraisal of its costs. As one of the main post-liberal thinkers, the philosopher John Gray has argued, progress is neither linear nor unconditionally good. What is gained can just as easily be lost, meaning that advancement is fragile and should never be taken for granted. And there are dark sides to progress too. We are witnessing new forms of discrimination, not least against faith communities. We also see a growing social fragmentation: family and community breakdown, division around identity, and an epidemic of loneliness and isolation. Social media generates the illusion of being together even as we are more alone. In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, Pope Francis put this well:
‘The pandemic has exposed the paradox that while we are more connected, we are also more divided. Feverish consumerism breaks the bonds of belonging’.
Post-liberal thinking breaks with the liberal focus on individual emancipation by shifting the emphasis of the meaning of liberty to what Edmund Burke described as ‘social freedom’:
Liberty, Burke writes,
is not solitary, unconnected, individual, selfish liberty, as if every man was to regulate the whole of his conduct by his own will. The liberty I mean is social freedom. It is that state of things in which liberty is secured by the equality of restraint. […] This kind of liberty is, indeed, but another name for justice; ascertained by wise laws, and secured by well-constructed institutions.
Where contemporary liberalism emphasizes the autonomy of the individual, post-liberalism focuses on the person embedded in relationships of mutual help and obligation. Where liberals stress free choice and social mobility, post-liberals shift the emphasis to a freedom linked to fraternity and a sense of belonging. It is a love for what the French Catholic philosopher Simone Weil calls ‘rootedness’:
‘the real, active and natural participation in the life of the community which preserves in living shape certain particular treasures of the past and certain particular expectations for the future’.
And where liberalism oscillates between market and state, post-liberalism focuses on the intermediary institutions that help to constitute society – civic organisations, charities, associations, local businesses, guilds, schools, universities, trades unions, places of worship, local government. A crucial institution in this ‘complex space’ is the church, from the local parish all the way to the national and international church structures. The church is vital because it embodies the most fundamental reality: a covenant – a partnership between generations, between regions, between groups, and with our natural environment or what Pope Francis calls our ‘common home of nature’. This covenantal relationship is qualitatively different from a social contract between individuals and the sovereign state.
Covenantal ties do not rest on individual rights or entitlements. Nor do they depend on the primacy of private property. Rather, they reflect the reality of our embedded and embodied nature. Humans are not merely political animals, as Aristotle remarked, but also social animals, as St Thomas Aquinas argued. We are bound together by relationships of gift exchange, relationships of ‘give-and-receive’ that give our daily lives meaning. Language, friendship, trust and cooperation are just some examples of what formal legal arrangements, administrative processes and money-based exchange miss – they fail to capture what makes us properly human.
The limits of contemporary ideologies
For these reasons, post-liberalism is not a new ideology. Instead, it seeks to renew some of the political and ethical traditions that gave rise to Christian cultures, and to Western civilisation, in its broadest sense. A post-liberal politics is not just a refusal of the collusion between the cultural liberalism of the left and the economic liberalism of the right, but also of the false choice of liberalism versus populism. If the given identities and loyalties of most people are ignored, along with their relatively (though not entirely) traditional attitudes towards the family, sex and gender, then democracy and liberalism tend to part company – as we have seen in recent years in the UK, the US and France.
There is currently a growing split in our politics. On the one hand, we are seeing a non-democratic politics, focused on the ‘human rights’ of minority claims and identities, incorporating the rise of judicial power. On the other, we see a populism speaking in the democratic name of neglected majority identities, but which can tend dangerously to demonise all ‘others’. As a result, we see a debasement of politics, increasingly taking the form of an ‘ultra-liberalism’ that just asserts the validity of every choice without debate.
It follows that when popular identities become disconnected from virtuous aspiration, from mutuality, from honour, from a sense of beauty, and from vocational aspiration, they can fall prey to blood and soil atavism and to both ethnic and cultural prejudice. And increasingly also to religious prejudice: religion too can become emptied of virtue, as with Islamic extremism, Christian fundamentalism or Hindu nationalism.
There is an alternative to this dangerous state of affairs. It is possible to restore a politics where there is continuous negotiation to achieve a common good – focused on goals of human flourishing that we can pursue together across difference. Virtue must be given back to identity. There will be some limits to success in this quest, that is to be understood. Areas of legitimate disagreement will remain, and in some areas people will pursue different and even incompatible goals. No political society really holds together without a shared concrete love. If it tries to do so, one gets liberal anarchy on the one hand and authoritarian populism on the other.
Contemporary liberalism is increasingly defined by uprooting in order always to ‘begin’ again, requiring malleable individuals who merely contract with one another under the aegis of the central state or who buy products or services or trade in the global marketplace. Either way, this is a route to becoming ever-more atomised as we are subordinate to the collective state and to market power. Any constructive alternative to liberalism and to capitalism must incorporate respect for tradition and custom, and for people and sacred, natural realities.
Marxist ideology in its cultural or economic sense is materialistic – it believes that only material forces have meaning and that all else is part of a “superstructure”. Hence it dismisses religion as mere opiate of the people. The materialism of Marxist ideas means that it is ultimately a collectivised liberalism and is not an adequate alternative at all. This matters because much of contemporary liberalism and progressive politics are influenced by cultural Marxism – not least extreme identity politics on the far left and its assault on social class, history and even our biological nature. We are witnessing an outpouring of hatred for the more socially (small-c) conservative working class with its attachment to family, community and country. The far left denigrate all historical inheritance in the name of imperialism or ‘white privilege’, and it attacks feminists who harbour legitimate doubts about transgender activists threatening women’s rights.
Rival versions of post-liberalism
Faced with the totalitarian temptations of the revolutionary left, the post-liberal alternative is emphatically not authoritarian populism. Some self-styled post-liberals claim that the left is too wedded to socio-cultural liberalism to embrace a postliberal politics of communal solidarity, whereas the right has already moved beyond deregulated capitalism. They point to the examples of Poland and Hungary, which combine a protectionist state with pro-family welfare and education policies.
But this glosses over the fact that the Polish and Hungarian models are a form of state capitalism largely reliant on fiscal dumping and deregulation to attract foreign capital while sliding into authoritarian nationalism that undermines constitutional freedoms. And the claim that it is easier for the right to move left on economics and public services than it is for the left to move right on culture and identity ignores the reality of contemporary right-wing governments. They are mostly variants of state-market power that are economically liberal (as with Keynesian spending) and socially antiliberal (as with Trump and aspects of the Hungarian and Polish governments) – not genuinely postliberal.
Behind the simplistic slogan ‘left on the economy and right on culture’ lurks an admiration for a politics of state control and the rule of strongmen – Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, Narendra Modi or Vladimir Putin. Nor can the political right claim to be post-liberal in ways that correspond to the best traditions of Judaism and Christianity. The ruling parties of Poland and Hungary, which have fostered a climate of impunity for virulent nationalism and anti-Semitism, are not exactly paragons of Christian democracy. A truly postliberal party or government is yet to emerge.
In short, certain versions of post-liberalism have gone too far in their critique of liberalism. They have promoted a politics that is antiliberal and antimodern, animated by a reactionary desire to roll back the new rights of minorities, and to return to social and political exclusion along the axes of race, sex or class. A true postliberal politics eschews crude forms of solidarity built on ethnic or religious homogeneity and instead embraces the pluralist heritage of ethical traditions forged in the nineteenth and the twentieth century – especially the body of work that is Catholic Social Thought and personalism (about which more presently).
Liberalism and anti-liberalism share a belief in the sovereign individual and the sovereign state, bound together by a social contract that is as abstracted from our embodied nature as it is secular in outlook. To believe in the reality of covenant, on the other hand, is to believe in the soul, in free will and in love. It is to believe that true human flourishing far exceeds individual happiness or collective utility. This version of post-liberalism has a conception of the common good that encompasses personal fulfilment, convivial societies and a flourishing biosphere. It incorporates a recognition of what is needed to bind human beings together, reconciling our estranged interests, constrained within a framework of reciprocal mutuality.
Central to a proper postliberal philosophy is the exercise of social virtues such as courageous leadership, generous compassion and loyalty across generations, the fulfilment of our obligations to others, the defence of pluralism against domination by any one part of society or the economy, a commitment to the importance of place, and an awareness of the limits on both human and technological power.
How post-liberalism seeks to renew the religious sources of Western civilisation
This vision is profoundly indebted to Christianity insofar as it requires a belief in spirit as more than matter and body, though not in a dualistic manner. Here the Judeo-Christian sources of Western civilisation are so central. The West, as the Catholic philosopher Rémi Brague has argued, is a uniquely ‘eccentric’ process of the transmission of realities that preceded it. These include the Hellenic discovery of philosophy and citizen self-rule, the Roman promotion of a more universal law, and a society which includes women and the family, as well as Jewish and Christian monotheism which further merged the city (polis) with the household (oikos) and demanded that justice serve mercy, love, relationships and individual fulfilment beyond political power.
What is valid in the Enlightenment develops all that. What is invalid departs from that vision in the name of neo-pagan cult, cynical agnosticism, materialistic fantasies and an abstract scientism divorced from truth. This invalidity also operates in the name of a liberalism that falsely reduces freedom to a matter of sheer choice, unencumbered by the relational constraints of family, community, history, and nature. Contemporary liberalism is underpinned by a utopian conception of liberty radically different from an understanding rooted in the person of Jesus of Nazareth – a relational, covenantal freedom to serve others and serve God and thereby become truly free from our own disordered desires. Sin is a reality, but so is our capacity for virtue. Genuine freedom is not absence of constraints on individual choice but instead nurturing our ability to associate with others around shared ends such as the common good and the good life – notions we in the West have inherited from Antiquity and the Middle Ages.
To speak of a distinct Western civilisation is not to imply any straightforwardly exceptional identity. Rather, recent discoveries in archaeology and anthropology – combined with insights from global history – indicate that the West is more like a relational web, which is to say a living tradition born of the interactions between the ancient civilisations of Rome, Greece, Babylon, Persia and India, as well as the emergence of Christianity with its roots in Hellenic Judaism. That tradition of Judaism was imbued with Greek philosophical ideas such as the radical transcendence of the Good, and the convenantal ties between the Creator God and creation.
This is not to suggest that the West has a monopoly on these ideas. Just the opposite, Christianity emerged at the crucible of civilisational traditions and geographic fault-lines – somewhere between Asia, Africa and Europe. The West emerged first from the Roman encounter with Greco-Babylonian culture and its Persian and Indian influences, and later the fusion of Greco-Roman philosophy and law with biblical faith. The patristic and medieval legacy was developed by Renaissance humanism, Romanticism and other traditions that charted a path towards an alternative modernity not dominated either by rationalism or emotivism. The former has a conception of man as a rational, utility-maximising machine. The latter is, in the words of the Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre:
‘the doctrine that all evaluative judgments and more specifically all moral judgments are nothing but expressions of preference, expressions of attitude or feeling’.
These ideas emerged from the modern separation of nature from supernatural grace, and reason from faith. For Christianity, as for Judaism, nature and supernatural grace are linked because nature discloses its own transcendent origin, while God’s grace works through the natural created order – through each and every one of us who is open to it. And just as faith needs reason in its quest for understanding (St Anselm), so too reason requires universal standards of truth provided by faith.
Far from enthroning a theocracy, the role of faith is vital for a vibrant democracy. In his historic address at the houses of the British Parliament in 2010, Pope Benedict XVI put it as follows:
‘the role of religion in political debate is not so much to supply [the objective norms governing right action], as if they could not be known by non-believers – still less to propose concrete political solutions, which would lie altogether outside the competence of religion – but rather to help purify and shed light upon the application of reason to the discovery of objective moral principles’.
A democratic politics and a truly social market economy need ideas and practices of the common good and human dignity which faith communities can try to embody.
Here the Western Judeo-Christian legacy resonates with other civilisations and world faiths that grew out of the Axial Age – an idea coined by the German philosopher Karl Jaspers to describe a period when the great philosophies and religions of East and West came into being. Jaspers points to the fusion of philosophy with theology in the period from around the eighth to the second century BC. Arguably, the Axial Age witnessed the emergence of somewhat similar patterns of thinking that have underpinned the civilisations of the West, Persia, India and China ever since.
The synthesis of religious belief with rational enquiry centred on a theoretical and practical critique of predominant norms of absolutist power underwritten by gods who were not believed to be on the side of ordinary human beings. Thus, the advent of critical thought and political resistance was from the outset inextricably intertwined with an appeal to religious transcendence – whether with Plato, Buddha, or Confucius. It was developed in crucial ways by Judaism and then Christianity.
Indeed, what remains special to the West is the intensity of its version of this legacy which most of all stresses the primacy of the person and of social relationship in this world and the next. Just for that reason the traditions of Christian personalism and humanism at the heart of Western civilisation are crucial.
The postliberal renewal of personalism
Personalism, which emphasizes the importance of human persons, rejects the secular logic of modern binaries – especially left versus right and individual versus collective – in favour of the idea that we live in webs of relationship. It maintains that relationship is formed through imitative action, yet also asserts that the relational bond permitting imitation is already there, as with parenthood, friendship, local community and the parish. Personalist thinkers, such as Emmanuel Mounier, Dorothy Day, Pope John Paul II, Henri de Lubac, Luigi Sturzo or Max Scheler, also made the paradoxical but coherent connection between individual uniqueness and relationality. Whereas the isolated liberal individual ever-more becomes a bare atom (ironically replaceable by any other atom), the embedded individual enjoys both a unique perspective and unique attributes.
To be a person is to become ever-more personal by trying to perfect relations and by seeking the good within human activity – being a good father or mother, son or daughter, colleague, wife or husband, team player, neighbour or citizen. But, taken together, the reality of sin as well as our capacity for virtue means that the human animal has a unique power to transform his or her environment, yet is also forever faced with the problems this presents – being alienated from the things we desire naturally or developing bad habits that prevent virtuous practice.
For these reasons, we need a way of living that incorporates gift exchange, with God and with each other that gives life meaning: an ecclesial body. This is exemplified by the Eucharistic sharing of the Body and Blood of Christ. Without the mystical body of the church, society permanently risks being dominated by the economic maximisation of wealth or the political pursuit of power. Indeed, the church is called to resist this domination by upholding the transcendent nature of the human person. Personalism insists on the irreducibility of soul to body, with spirit comprising both, as in the Christian tradition. This is to defend an authentic understanding of human freedom, free will and our powers of discernment and judgment, without which any sort of democracy in the best sense would lose all grounds of possibility.
The art of politics
This recalls Aristotle’s definition of politics as phronesis, or practical wisdom: an ethical art linking human intention to virtuous skill. Without such an integrated conception, social judgement will be stripped from the hands of workers who are homo faber, creative beings who desire relationality, creative fulfilment in work, festivity and joy.
For Aristotle, the aim of politics is to nurture flourishing citizens, which means instilling virtuous practices in social and economic relations and fostering the formation of moral character. The aim of social and economic relations is not so much the satisfaction of private preferences but the service of the public good along with all its particular relational goods. Within a country, the widest possible personalist framework is the polis with its mixed constitution.
Yet relationships and institutions cross the boundaries of states. Therefore, the broadest scope of just reciprocal exchange of relational goods between persons is the international society of cities, regions, nations and cultural commonwealths – socially and culturally shared ties between peoples. Inspired by Christian universalism that finds its highest expression in the particularity of the local parish, post-liberalism tries to balance a healthy patriotism with a commitment to internationalism.
Post-liberalism is not about to replace the old opposition of left vs right or newer binaries such as liberalism vs populism. But it has already reshaped British and Western politics by changing the political debate away from the pursuit of utopian visions towards the quest for things that matter to most people: families, a sense of belonging to places, traditions, relationships. Jon Cruddas for example, in his seminal book The Dignity of Labour, draws on Catholic Social Thought and ethical socialism to show that our fundamental human need for fulfilling work is central to a politics of the good life.
This is the new battleground of ideas for political parties and others who seek to generate a politics that is transformative, just and stable, and which is respectful of creation and of humanity expressed in a plurality of identities and interests. The hope is to reframe the political terms of reference ‘towards a mutual commitment, extending backwards and forwards in history, to sustain our common life and pursue the common good.’*
© Adrian Pabst
Adrian Pabst is Professor of Politics at the University of Kent. His latest book, Postliberal Politics: the Coming Era of Renewal, argues for an alternative to hyper-capitalism and extreme identity politics, a postliberal politics centred around trust, dignity, and human relationships, fusing economic justice with social solidarity and ecological balance. He is also author of The Demons of Liberal Democracy (2019), co-author (with John Milbank) of The Politics of Virtue (2016), editor of The Crisis of Global Capitalism (2011) and and co-editor of Blue Labour: Forging a New Politics (2015). Among his other roles, he is also currently one of two Deputy Directors at the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, and a member of the academic board of the Foundation Centesimus Annus Pro Pontifice whose main mission is to promote Catholic Social Thought.
This article was featured in T4CG’s Summer 2021 Newsletter.