Are we postliberal yet?
A little bit of Burke
Is postliberalism what we’ve had, or where we’re going? I’m never quite sure - and every time a new book pops up on the subject it’s made quite clear no one else really does either.
Danny Kruger’s book, Covenant: The New Politics of Home, Neighbourhood and Nation, is the latest to spark off the discussion. Now I am not able to offer as informed a view to Kruger’s book that veterans of the postliberal world are (not least because I haven’t read it) but there are, conveniently, people who have already done it for me.
Ed West gives it a broadly sympathetic reading, and is especially welcoming of Kruger’s willingness to tackle the Dinner Party Problem. Meanwihile, over at the Daily Sceptic, J Sorel agues that Kruger’s great mistake is his misdiagnosis. Postliberalism has already won, he argues, and the poor winnings are to be found all around us; ‘As we have seen, there is now almost no trace of liberal individualism anywhere in modern Britain. In the Britain of 2023, the language of obligation is everywhere.’
Both Ed and Sorel make excellent points. Britons are increasingly atmoised, and our social fabric is unravelling as a result of lack of ‘adhesion’, as Kruger puts it. Yet Britons – and particularly post-boomer cohorts – are increasingly saddled with an outsized set of ‘responsibilities’ and scant ‘rewards’, whilst all the time ‘they are ruled by a series of dogmas which demand their fealty and are making their lives worse’.
For what it’s worth, I recommend reading both, because they give you some insight into the essential question of this Substack; is postliberalism present, or future?
As Robert Cialdini writes in Influence, “people don’t counter-argue stories … if you want to be successful in a post-fact world, you do it by presenting accounts, narratives, stories and images and metaphors”. Postliberalism offers a deeply compelling story that explains both what road we’re on and how we got there.
It’s compelling to those on the right who, like me, have been searching for a coherent narrative. It’s especially compelling young right wingers who, like me, have seen 13 years of Conservative government deliver a country that is neither more prosperous nor more conservative than when we took power 13 years ago (surely it must be a structural problem, I tell myself. Surely).
Postliberalism is also tempting because it offers a roadmap forward; not only an answer to the near-continuous conservative quest for community but a way to deliver a cohesive nation that is more socially conservative and economically self-sufficient and self-interested.
The other big draw is the huge pool of voters that a socially conservative, fiscally interventionist party would appeal to; ‘Fund the NHS, hand the paedos’ would win every election from the birth of Adam to the death of the universe. As I’ve written before, most Britons; ‘hold conservative social values when it comes to law and order or matters of state but in economic terms they are both interventionist and redistributive… This was also the wave of voters that backed Boris, although his ability to capitalise on this realignment was more luck than judgement. He stumbled onto a winning formula that worked as well in Stratford as it did in Stockton: a shift to the right on crime, immigration and culture mirrored by a move to the left on economics. Levelling Up may have been little more than boosterism, but it spoke to people’s desire for a fairer settlement.’
Yet postliberals keep fumbling the bag - even after Boris showed them that there is, indeed, gold in them thar hills - because its’ greatest failure has always been in transferring prose into policy. ‘Kruger’s book’ Ed tells us, ‘doesn’t go into policy details, rather it is a short reflection on the philosophy of the Burkean movement within a party that has long been an alliance of liberals and conservatives.’ The problem with this is that it’s about time postliberals started doing policy; of the foundational texts, Philip Blond’s Red Tory is nearly 15 years old, Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed is 5 years old and David Goodhart’s The Road to Somewhere is a year older. Ed, who contributed to a book on Blue Labour in 2015, writes that ‘beyond meaning culturally Right and economically Left, I’m not entirely sure what it means, especially as it seems to have a slightly different definition on either side of the Atlantic.’
Postliberalism’s failure to step from the realm of prose into policy means we’re having the worst of both worlds; we are at once far too postliberal and, yet, not nearly postliberal enough. We are far too postliberal in the sense that we talk constantly of responsibilities, whilst are not nearly postliberal enough in ensuring those responsibilities engender rights.
For the constant talk of restoring the bonds of communities what postliberalism has meant in practice, so far, is more tax, bigger government and the continued unravelling of Britain’s social fabric. That’s because Postliberal practitioners have been largely unable to come up with an idea of rights or responsibilities beyond those which are arbitrated by the state – i.e, by central government provision and taxation. But the constant, single-minded reliance on utilising the arms of the state is simply entrenching many of the social problems postliberals are aiming to fix – alongside developing economic ones – as the real bonds of community have been subsumed by the state. To quote myself at length:
The fundamental issue at the heart of any attempt to restore social cohesion with central government playing the leading role, however, is that it runs up against the conservative understanding of community. Burke was right; it is the little platoon we belong to first, not the big brigade, and central government is the biggest brigade of all…
But the ever-increasing scope of government – both local and national – expunges ever more small, local forms of association, reducing the rights, roles and responsibilities born by the public realm. It is, as David Marquand puts it, a ‘hollowing out of citizenship,’ and the result has been a reconstruction of British society founded on the presumption that ‘the public realm is morally, economically and socially inferior to the private realm.’ This is the ideology that drives hub-based government, and the hollowing out becomes a self-fuelling motor to drive yet more state expansion…
But the more power the state gathers, the weaker civil society becomes. The weaker civil society becomes, the more difficult the pursuit of ‘the common good’ becomes, because civil society is the vehicle by which the common good can most effectively be pursued. As Alasdair Macintyre argues; ‘the shared public goods of the modern nation-state are not the common goods of a genuine nation-wide community and, when the nation-state masquerades as the guardian of such a common good, the outcome is bound to be either ludicrous or disastrous or both.’
I was criticised when I wrote this for arguing that the state has no role to play in rebuilding community, but that’s not quite where I’m at. Government does, undoubtedly, have a role to play in this rebuilding; one of the villages I represent, for instance, has exemplifies a very postliberal solution to saving its’ pub. But that is state-backed, rather than provided, and provision relies on a groundswell of energetic, organic community that ‘requires people to stand up for themselves and take a real civic pride in where they live, what their community looks like and, of course, in the improvement of their common life.’
Rather I’m arguing that postliberal practitioners too often revert to the simple answer of seeing every social issue as evidence for a government programme. The problem with this is that that Burke was right - it is the little platoon we belong to first, not the big brigade, and central government is the biggest brigade of all. What postliberalism needs is a strain of Burkeanism that recognises the need for genuine community, for bonds of belonging entirely outside the purview of the state, and for ‘responsibilities’ defined outside of the tax take.
Sorel is right in his fundamental argument, too, that the strains of postliberalism we see developed in government are heavy on responsibilities and low on rights. Let’s consider the average UK working age person. The Resolution Foundation found recently that after 15 years of wage stagnation, the poor sod was £11,000 worse off than they should be. After that decade and a half of flatlined living standards, their real income is now predicted to drop 5 per cent by the end of 2023.
They face the biggest fall in living standards on record. The OBR predicts they’ll still be 0.4 per cent below pre-pandemic levels by the end of 2028. That will coincide nicely with the highest levels of public spending since the 1970s, funded by the biggest tax burden since World War Two.
That is without factoring the pensions conundrum. The effects of an increasing dependency ratio means that workers’ income tax burden will have to increase by £15bn a year, according to the Resolution Foundation. Pensions will weigh increasingly on a workforce already shrinking — and predicted to shrink even more as the youngest boomers begin to retire. That is in addition to supporting the Triple Lock which, far beyond simply entrenching intergenerational inequality, is now more comparable to a direct transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich.
And what rights do these responsibilities beget? We have blocked almost entire generations from owning their own home, despite it being a key step in the development of rooted community & family-focussed life postliberals are supposed to value. Meanwhile it continues to prioritise the interests of fringe interest groups and NIMBYs over raising the living standards of citizens, for example reducing the cost of living through increasing energy production.
If conservative postliberalism is ever to take off, it has to recognise the need for to rebuild the nation’s social fabric to create stable, cooperative and contented communities by building up relationships and institutions that provide a sense of belonging by genuine devolution, not by synthetic top-down attempts to induce community via ‘community hubs’. That should go hand-in-hand with an increase in personal - and corresponding decrease in government – responsibility. The answer to our social problems is not more community workers, but to raise up Public Man once more.
As for rights, it will need to redress intergenerational disparity by enabling home ownership and redressing the outsize tax burden - at the expense, if necessary, of more happier generations. More generally it will have to work to establish a more level playing field, directing its energies at creating an economy that raises the standard of living for everyone, rather than focussing on redistributing the spoils of the victors.
In Reflections, Burke asked; ‘do you seriously think that the territory of France… can ever be governed as one body, or can ever be set in motion by the impulse of one mind?’ and complained that ‘three or four thousand little democracies had been reduced to just one.’ Postliberalism’s great failing, really, is not appreciating that Burke is always right. And now we are governed by one body, and have reduced our democracies to just one.
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 Conservative MPs are often constrained in their politics, and therefore take more moderate lines, by their desire to still be invited to polite dinner parties.