After the Liberalism Debates
Contributing editor Sohrab Ahmari responds to intracollegiate critique.
I find debates over liberalism, post-liberalism, and political Catholicism both exhausted and exhausting.
This weariness might puzzle readers who mainly associate my byline with precisely these ideas. Those who follow their twists and turns closely, however, know that my comrades and I in the broad post-liberal camp have moved on. It isn’t that we have reconsidered our root-and-branch hostility to liberalism, mind you. On the contrary, the political and personal experience of the past few years has only confirmed and intensified the hostility.
There’s no hankering for peace once you’ve faced the sharp end of liberals’ efforts to neutralize threats to their regime, as my then-New York Post colleagues and I did in October 2020, in the wake of the paper’s still-undisputed Hunter Files reporting. On the personal front, meanwhile, liberalism’s aggressions against one’s true loves—in my case, the Catholic Church, my children’s innocence—have a way of focusing the mind and heart.
I was a liberal of various sorts until the age of 30 or 31. Then came marriage, conversion, and fatherhood—three enormous graces that prompted my decisive turn against liberalism, first slowly, then all at once. Without in any way comparing the merits of my work with his, Juan Donoso Cortés—the great 19th-century Spanish writer, diplomat, and political Catholic—made a similar break at roughly the same age. Which is why I’m not the least bit bothered when my critics crow, Aha! Aha! Ahmari’s changed his mind!
You can find a more in-depth account of this shift in my latest book, The Unbroken Thread (a recent appearance on The Ezra Klein Show, guest-hosted by Ross Douthat, offers a useful précis). In it, I draw on the world’s great traditions—not just Catholic, but also Anglican, Jewish, Confucian, Stoic, even feminist—to highlight the poverty of an ideology that idolizes individual autonomy as the highest good of human life.
Each of the book’s chapters explores the same paradox: how liberal modernity promised to free men and women from various traditional authorities and limits but only ended up ushering a greater unfreedom. Its vision of reason unbound from metaphysics, for example, cashed out in a more pinched account of reason that couldn’t account for final causes and, therefore, rendered the world less, not more, legible to the philosopher and ordinary person alike. The abolition of the traditional limits that formerly restrained economic activity—the Sabbath, say—liberated the large employer, but not the worker or the family. The dream of conquering nature and the body brought about the conquest of our minds by absurdities like gender ideology. And so on.
I recapitulate all this to show that I’ve Done The Work, as the kids say. I’ve tried to formulate a critique of liberal order that is internally coherent and systematic (or at least, as much is possible for someone in my profession; I’m a writer and journalist at the end of the day, not a theorist). Having done that, I’ve moved on to more concrete projects. Increasingly, that means reviving America’s homegrown traditions of resistance against overweening corporate power, the material engine of liberal disintegration.
The same is true of other prominent political Catholics: Adrian Vermeule is busy recovering the classical and Christian legal tradition, as the true frame of American law, over against both progressives and originalists in the legal academy; Gladden Pappin is ploughing the fields of political economy and family policy; Patrick Deneen and Chad Pecknold are arranging new, anti-liberal formations in political theory and political theology, respectively; and so on.
And we, the political Catholics, find ourselves within a wider, religiously ecumenical cohort of writers, thinkers and active politicians who share our critique to varying degrees. There are pure populists, nationalists and national conservatives, anti-liberal feminists, even old-school economic leftists whose insights into the intersection of culture and economics we would be foolish to ignore. I prefer a big-tent approach that permits disagreement over what should come next.
Which brings me to my TAC colleague Rod Dreher. Over the years, Rod has done yeoman’s labor documenting the rise of liberal “soft totalitarianism.”It was in his work, for example, that I first encountered the chilling possibility of an American social-credit system (operated by private firms, naturally); now his prophecy is coming to pass. I have praised this work repeatedly, reviewed it generously, and continue to see Rod as an important contributor to our public discourse.
But as he would likely be the first to admit, Rod is not a systematic thinker. This is a fact that makes it difficult to argue with him once he decides to disagree with a fellow writer—and as readers may have noticed, the latest disagreement has centered on me. There is an ocean of words, flowing into a thousand crisscrossing streams, rivers, rivulets, and tributaries. You try to follow one of these waterways to its logical conclusion but are soon swept by the dramatic surge of another.
Does Rod believe that the wokeness he decries is an outgrowth of classical liberalism? Or is it, rather, a distortion or aberration? Does Rod suspect that “liberalism is dead”? Or is it the best we can do in a “pluralist” society, which presumably means it can be resurrected? If we can return to some gentler stage of liberalism, what would prevent us from ending right back where we are, given that that gentler stage contained the conditions that brought us here?
Should we mourn the passing of an “authentic liberalism” and “liberal principles,” lost to “an aggressive and punitive politics that resembles Bolshevism,” as Rod has written? Or was this Bolshevik tendency lying dormant in old-school liberalism all along, as he also argued? Is the Good “the basis of a postliberal political order,” an order that Rod claims to strive after? Or is the Good so indeterminate that any authoritative assertion of it would be a terrible imposition?
Should American conservatives pursue Viktor Orban-style policies against LGBT ideology in schools, as Rod has recommended? If so, then how does he square that with his recent assertion that only “porny” books should be banned from school libraries (gender ideology can be promoted in non-“porny” books, after all)? Should we aim to forge institutions in truth (“live not by lies!”), or merely to enshrine a right to disagree (i.e., free speech as a high good)?
This is all very confusing. The source of the confusion (and attendant anxiety), I suspect, is a refusal to relinquish some fundamental liberal commitments. Rod is prepared to admit this. The trouble is that some of those commitments rest on the deceptions liberal ideology spins about itself and the world. Such as the notion that it’s possible to run a society without moral coercion (whatever the morality). Or that liberals invented procedural norms and rule of law just a few centuries ago, and, therefore, to imagine a world without liberalism necessarily means imagining a lawless barbarism. Or that because there is a range of opinions about the good, it would be a grave crime to authoritatively guide a society (relatedly, that such a decision can be forestalled forever). Or finally that “liberalism” itself is so indeterminate a concept that we can’t draw definite conclusions about it.
One of the rules I strictly adhere to in professional life is never to publicly disagree with someone who has done you a solid in life, except in self-defense. Rod has done me multiple solids in life. Therefore, I don’t intend to return to these debates again. It is vital that the ecumenical cohort that shares a critique of liberalism moves on. We can’t permit backsliding into liberalism’s illusions, the yearning to plug ourselves back into the Matrix to taste that juicy-but-fake steak once again.