Two New ResPublica Seminars on Post-Liberalism

With a Summer and Autumn of cultural upheaval in the Anglosphere (as a result of Covid, fiery protests of various sorts, Brexit debates and, now, an ongoing US election that will perpetuate the liberal order, whether economically with Trump or socially and economically with Biden), there’s certainly appetite for considering fresh ideas that might take us forward with the crucial task of re-constructing community and society.

It’s just as well, then, that the UK think-tank ResPublica have recently produced two instructive seminars on post-liberalism, that political philosophy which, in broad terms, advocates moving to the left on the economy, to the right on culture and identity and to the local and particular in governance. Identifying the overarching assumption of liberalism as unmitigated autonomy—the human person unmoored form ties to person or place—post-liberals seek to offer a positive vision that prioritises relationships, community and belonging in our cultural, economic and social life.

The first seminar, The Future of Post-liberalism: An International Seminar looks at the question, What does a good post-liberalism look like, both now and into the future? In the nature of an international seminar, voices from North America (Patrick Deneen and Adrian Vermeule) mixed with those from the UK (Philip Blond and Nick Timothy) and Eastern Europe (Ryzard Legutko).

Mary Harrington chaired the discussion and gratefully so, since she was able to shift the discussion towards first order principles and, as part of this, the relationship between religious faith (Christianity, in particular) and post-liberalism. The particular highlight here was Philip Blond’s discussion (around 46:00) of how a full-blooded and genuine Christian faith can bring together the national and the particular, and avoid the excesses of both (happily overlapping with, and helping to deepen, some of my own explorations here and here). There were many other highlights, including Patrick Deneen’s description of the value of economic and social guardrails (27:45) and the discussion of the liberal roots of nationalism. The latter conversation raised new points of insight that I hadn’t considered and was a helpful way of framing a post-liberal particularism and patriotism that also seeks to be internationalist—not in the sense of having everyone conform to liberal values and judging their worth on their capacity to do so, but in the sense of genuinely attributing dignity to each individual, made in God’s image, as distinct and worthy of care.

The second seminar, Postliberalism in the UK, homed in on the British scene and featured a stellar cast of British intellectuals: Matthew Goodwin, Mary Harrington, Louise Perry, Nick Timothy and Paul Embery.

Again, no shortage of highlights but the main one for me was the discussion around family, sex and post-liberalism. The post-liberal movement often is thought of as being a club for conflicted socialists with a penchant for misogyny and homophobia. But each of the panelists (and especially Harrington, Perry and Timothy) highlight that post-liberalism does not equate to social illiberalism; that is, post-liberalism need not and should not throw the baby out with the bath water, but can comfortably acknowledge that liberalism from the 1960s onwards has won some hard-fought liberties for minority groups, including especially for women and gay people. This probably raises a point of difference with some thinkers within the post-liberal tent, particularly though not exclusively in the US, who would want the state to enforce more socially conservative positions. What the British contingent instructively achieved was to frame these hard-won liberties within a broader framework of duties (i.e. we have a duty to one another first and foremost, and rights that protect as individuals second) and against the backdrop of societal unity (i.e. we must avoid attempts to divide society into groups of belonging, as in various right and left wing versions of common-enemy identity politics).

The lasting memory that I will take away with me from this conversation is Harrington’s discussion of motherhood (from 27:42 onwards). From the experience of women weaning a child, and the ubiquitous participation in relationships of dependence on (a) parent/s, we learn that we need and belong to each other, that we are communitarian beings, not atomised units that exist each for one’s self. As Harrington puts it, this communitarian insight is one that “we need to generalise to the entirety of post-liberal politics and have as a foundational thesis for everything that we’re doing”. The practical take-away here isn’t just “having a few more policies for mothers” (as necessary as that is…and for fathers, I might add). Rather, the insight of belonging to one another is foundational to everything that we might to do in society, working out in class politics (“we belong to each other and so we cannot just exploit the working class in the gig economy”), in our relationship to the environment (“we can’t just strip mine the world while spewing out garbage”) and so on. This fundamental insight drawn from parenting, Harrington concludes, allows for an overwhelmingly positive programme of re-construction, as she has put it elsewhere , that does not simply stand against, but for people and place.

In sum, post-liberalism has no shortage of intellectual heft behind it. Giles Fraser has produced a tidy post-liberal bibliography/reading list, which, along with his own writing, more than evidences this point. And there’s MT Steiner’s thought-provoking typology of post-liberalism in the Anglophone world in which he offers the post-liberal centrism, as he puts it, of Red Toryism and Blue Labour as the most profitable and electable post-liberalism, in contrast to left and right wing versions. Now with these two ResPublica seminars, and the promise of more to come, there is, I think, hope that this movement will continue to have a positive, practical and meaningful influence on our common life.

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