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Art After Liberalism, Part 4: Postliberal Cold War, United States Edition

Post #1905 • November 17, 2021, 8:45 PM • 2 Comments

["Art After Liberalism" is a paper rejected by the 53rd Congress of the International Association of Art Critics (AICA), supported instead by readers. Index: Proposal, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.]

It is facile to dismiss Orban as a "far-right" bigot. The other side of the story is that Orban sees progressive postliberalism eating the West alive.

In today’s open-society Europe there are no borders; European people can be readily replaced with immigrants; the family has been transformed into an optional, fluid form of cohabitation; the nation, national identity and national pride are seen as negative and obsolete notions; and the state no longer guarantees security in Europe. In fact, in liberal Europe being European means nothing at all: it has no direction, and it is simply form devoid of content.... Working together, political leaders and technology giants filter news items that are uncomfortable for the liberal elite. If you don’t believe this, just visit these websites, visit social media sites, and you’ll see the ingenious and cunning means by which they restrict access to negative news reports on migrants, immigrants and related topics, and how they prevent European citizens from facing reality. The liberal concept of freedom of opinion has gone so far that liberals see diversity of opinion as important up until the point that they realise, to their shock, that there are opinions which are different from theirs. Liberals’ vision of press freedom reminds us of the old Soviet joke: “However I try to assemble parts from the bicycle factory, I end up with a machine gun.” However I try to assemble the parts of this liberal press freedom, the result is censorship and political correctness.

If you'll pardon my speaking for Orban, what he means here is a late, transformed phase of liberalism that betrays its original priorities in the name of upholding them—what I'm calling progressive postliberalism, a term he might reject. For that matter, Vladmir Putin, a fellow conservative postliberal, recently spoke the following:

We look in amazement at the processes underway in the countries which have been traditionally looked at as the standard-bearers of progress. Of course, the social and cultural shocks that are taking place in the United States and Western Europe are none of our business; we are keeping out of this. Some people in the West believe that an aggressive elimination of entire pages from their own history, “reverse discrimination” against the majority in the interests of a minority, and the demand to give up the traditional notions of mother, father, family and even gender, they believe that all of these are the mileposts on the path towards social renewal.

Listen, I would like to point out once again that they have a right to do this, we are keeping out of this. But we would like to ask them to keep out of our business as well. We have a different viewpoint, at least the overwhelming majority of Russian society – it would be more correct to put it this way – has a different opinion on this matter. We believe that we must rely on our own spiritual values, our historical tradition and the culture of our multiethnic nation.

The advocates of so-called ‘social progress’ believe they are introducing humanity to some kind of a new and better consciousness. Godspeed, hoist the flags as we say, go right ahead. The only thing that I want to say now is that their prescriptions are not new at all. It may come as a surprise to some people, but Russia has been there already. After the 1917 revolution, the Bolsheviks, relying on the dogmas of Marx and Engels, also said that they would change existing ways and customs and not just political and economic ones, but the very notion of human morality and the foundations of a healthy society. The destruction of age-old values, religion and relations between people, up to and including the total rejection of family (we had that, too), encouragement to inform on loved ones – all this was proclaimed progress and, by the way, was widely supported around the world back then and was quite fashionable, same as today. By the way, the Bolsheviks were absolutely intolerant of opinions other than theirs.

Say what you will of Putin, where's the lie? While progressive postliberals insist that Critical Race Theory doesn't exist, or if it exists it's not being taught at the K-12 level, or if it is being taught at the K-12 level then its critics are domestic terrorists, Putin cuts through the bullshit and says that these and related attempts to re-engineer humanity have already been tried and they were disasters. His answer, and Orban's answer, is to institute an equally vigorous conservative postliberalism to keep those disasters from recurring.

I would critique their means, particularly regarding what the press has suffered in those countries. And I have a consummately low opinion of the Hungarian government ordering a lesbian publishing house to slap warning labels on their kids books. (I'm still angry about Tipper Gore.) But the ends? I'm not entirely sure how to fault them. Conversely I would advise against a progressive postliberal faulting their means, for they have no objection to the arbitrary exercise of state power per se. The FBI—which could not be moved to halt serial molestation of 120 Olympic gymnasts—conducted an early morning raid on the home of James O'Keefe of Project Veritas a couple of weeks ago over a diary purported to belong to the daughter of the president, with which O'Keefe did nothing, as he was not convinced that it was genuine. He had already offered to deliver it to Ms. Biden's lawyer. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York shut down the FBI's investigation last week, which gives you an estimation of its legality. Not exactly Putinesque, but nothing that should be going on in a country with chartered press freedom either, particularly given that ostensibly serious commentators spent four years saying that the First Amendment was under assault because Donald Trump was rude to CNN.

Am I calling the effort to establish CRT-derived ideas as official K-12 curriculum, and the Biden administration as a whole, postliberal? Indeed I am. Regarding the former, here's Wikipedia:

Common themes that are characteristic of critical race theory include:

  • Critique of liberalism: Critical race theory scholars question foundational liberal concepts such as Enlightenment rationalism, legal equality and constitutional neutrality, and they challenge the incrementalist approach of traditional civil-rights discourse.

The citation for that statement is page 3 of Critical Race Theory: An Introduction (2017) by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic. As for the latter, let me count the ways. The regime so disdains its majority population that it let two million immigrants cross the southern border in this past fiscal year alone. It is transporting said immigrants throughout the US interior under cover of night. The aforementioned designation of parents criticizing CRT as domestic terrorists turned out to have been engineered by the White House. It regularly moves forward with initiatives that it knows are unconstitutional, and defies the courts to stop them; this has now happened regarding its debt relief to farmers of color, the CDC eviction moratorium, and most notably and destructively, the looming vaccine mandate. It just passed a $1.2 trillion spending bill, having failed to garner support for a $3.5 trillion spending bill. Its head of the Bureau of Land Management is linked to eco-terrorism. Its nominee for the office of the comptroller graduated from Moscow State University in 1989 on a Lenin Personal Academic Scholarship and would like to remake American banking on the old Soviet model. Its Fed chair wants the power to scrutinize bank accounts with as little as $600 as potentially complicit in tax evasion. Did I mention that its attorney general, a man whom Democrats wanted to place on the Supreme Court, just raided the home of a journalist?

This is not the behavior of a liberal regime. Again, it's not wholly illiberal any more than Hungary is wholly illiberal. But neither is it the kind of order that a people who love individual rights, tolerance, markets, and existential equality can point to with pride. And this is leaving aside the large degree to which progressive postliberalism has captured the corporations, the media, and the institutions, including the art institutions.

American progressive postliberalism has a wrinkle not found in its European counterpart—continual attacks on the founding. Ibram X. Kendi:

It is hardly coincidental that this nation’s first experiment in (wealthy, white male) democracy emerged alongside the first experiment with black enslavement (and Native assimilation), that the history of African America and American democracy are both rooted in 1619. It is hardly coincidental that both 400-year anniversaries are being marked this year, that John’s freedom begot Angela’s enslavement, that John climbed his elevated whiteness onto the head of Angela’s lowered blackness.

It is not coincidental that that all happened then. That that is all happening now. That that 400 years. That that racism and anti-racism. That that America.

(That that is the kind of copy that that goes to print when your editor is afraid of editing you.) Kendi of course is writing in support of Nikole Hannah-Jones's 1619 Project, which claims that America was founded as a "slavocracy" (which somehow doesn't mean "rule by slaves"; again, gotta love those terrified editors) and that “anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country.” Why is it necessary to denigrate the American founding like this? Because unlike Hungary, which has a common language, a common religion, distinct DNA, and a thousand years of shared history, America's common heritage is the nobility of its founding. Full stop. Delegitimizing the American founding would be an enormous win for progressive postliberalism, opening the door to remaking the country any old way.

Who then are the American conservative postliberals? Rod Dreher is being pulled into their orbit, having recently spent a few months in Hungary:

Here in Hungary, there was outrage on the Left over the Orban government transferring public dollars to private foundations overseeing institutions (educational, etc) broadly favorable to conservatism. Were I on the Hungarian left, I would have complained too. But here’s the thing: massive amounts of public monies have gone for years and years to institutions — colleges and universities — that are broadly favorable to liberalism and/or socialism. Nobody on the Left cares about this, because they believe it is the natural order of the world. They believe that it is their right to use liberal institutions (universities) to advance illiberal, socially destructive ideologies. And they want the public to subsidize the destruction of its own traditions, morals, and political interests.

Orban says no. Unlike Trump, he is a skilled politician who knows how to govern. The challenge I’ve had to face this summer is with my own belief in classical liberalism. I am a half-hearted classical liberal at best, but I honestly believe that classical liberalism on a base of robust Christian belief is about the best form of government we can hope for in the modern age. Not a perfect form of government, but better than the other possibilities on offer. Yet having seen what has happened in the US in the last few years, especially over the last year, I don’t really believe anymore than liberalism as we have known it can defend itself. Nor do I have much confidence that it should be defended. If “liberalism” requires a nation to open its children’s minds to transgender propaganda, then to hell with liberalism. If “liberalism” requires white people to despise themselves for the color of their skin, and requires Asian people to disadvantage their own children, who are supposed to suffer because they study hard and lead disciplined lives, then to hell with liberalism. If “liberalism” means that we are supposed to prove our virtue by denouncing our ancestors and purging our libraries and our classroom of books that have long been part of the canon of Western civilization, then… you know. Why should we want to defend this culture of death?

Conservative postliberalism identified as such seems mostly confined to discussion between category-averse intellectuals like Dreher (see, e.g., Patrick Deneen) though there's undoubtedly some selection bias going on with that impression because I don't consume a lot of populist media outside of news about comics and heavy metal. Typical is this review of A World After Liberalism by Matthew Rose, quoting the author, “We are living in a postliberal moment. After three decades of dominance, liberalism is losing its hold on Western minds.” Exploration of philosophers like Oswald Spengler and Julius Evola ensues. The author of the review concludes,

To its credit, Rose’s rich and provocative little book reminds us that the excesses of liberalism, or its degeneration into relativistic and moralistic progressivism, will hardly be addressed by throwing the baby out with the bathwater. But theology, while necessary, is not sufficient to address the tasks before us. What is needed now more than ever is the renewal of political reason that remains faithful to the twin goods that are truth and liberty. In pursuit of this noble path, we need the fruitful cooperation of the two wings—faith and reason.

Which of course is conservative liberalism stated plainly, and basically what Dr. King was getting at in the essay cited in Part 2. That said, populist conservative postliberalism could emerge of its own accord by way of its defensive inclinations. Many readers will be surprised to learn that there is a significant strain of anti-capitalism within conservatism. Ron Desantis's ban on private businesses requiring vaccine documentation is coming to legal grief and in any case doesn't evince much faith in markets. Greg Abbot's new abortion law is probably unconstitutional, and in any case doesn't evince much faith in resolving differences through persuasion. Deeply weird phenomena are lurking around populist conservatism (remember the Q Shaman?) that could easily get behind an Orban-inspired aspirant to the White House. I'm open to the argument that Trump was that person, and could become him again. I would counter that Trump, unlike Orban, doesn't seem to have a theory of power of any kind. In politics as in art, even magnificent instincts only get you so far.

For now, American progressive postliberalism's main attack is on conservative liberalism. Should this continue, there will be a conservative postliberal counterattack. One already seems to be brewing. (In case anyone is thinking it, I'm not referring to the shellacking that Democrats suffered in the recent elections. That looks to me like the Revenge of the Liberals, driven chiefly by Biden voters who did not sign up for what's going on under Bidenism. I'm going to come back to this. I mean instead that the tenor of conservatism is changing.) It's possible to imagine a future in which the wind dies out of the sails of liberalism completely, leaving progressive, conservative, and Chinese conceptions of postliberalism to carve up the remainder of the world not already under the command of Islamic preliberalism. In that case, what form will art and art criticism take? We have clues in the present situation. This will be the subject of Part 5.




November 23, 2021, 6:16 PM

Shortly after I posted the above, reports started to roll in from the National Conservatism Conference, called NatCon by those in the know, which took place in Orlando over three days starting with Halloween. David Brooks filed a piece at the Atlantic that bears the title "The Terrifying Future of the American Right." Brooks's own copy was characteristically more moderate:

Over the past few decades there have been various efforts to replace the Reagan Paradigm: the national-greatness conservatism of John McCain; the compassionate conservatism of George W. Bush; the Reformicon conservatism of the D.C. think tanks in the 21st century. But the Trumpian onslaught succeeded where these movements have so far fizzled because Trump understood better than they did the coalescence of the new American cultural/corporate elite and the potency of populist anger against it. Thus the display of Ivy League populism I witnessed in Orlando might well represent the alarming future of the American right: the fusing of the culture war and the class war into one epic Marxist Götterdämmerung.

That said, postliberalism was all over the place.

One of the ideas [that Rachel Bovard has] absorbed is that the conservatives who came before her were insufferably naive. They thought liberals and conservatives both want what’s best for America, disagreeing only on how to get there. But that’s not true, she believes. “Woke elites—increasingly the mainstream left of this country—do not want what we want... What they want is to destroy us,” she said. “Not only will they use every power at their disposal to achieve their goal,” but they’ve already been doing it for years “by dominating every cultural, intellectual, and political institution.”

Here in a nutshell is the problem with the Manichean approach. The group I'm calling progressive liberals, I believe, do want what's best for America in commonality with the group I'm calling conservative liberals, including Brooks. But the progressive postliberals do not. About that, Bovard is correct, and Brooks seems not to have grasped the situation. Brooks continues:

My old friend Rod Dreher of The American Conservative argued that because the left controls the commanding heights of the culture and the economy, the only institution the right has a shot at influencing is the state. In these circumstances the right has to use state power to promote its values. “We need to quit being satisfied with owning the libs, and save our country,” Dreher said. “We need to unapologetically embrace the use of state power.” ...This is national conservatism pursued to its logical conclusion: using state power to break up and humble the big corporations and to push back against coastal cultural values. The culture war merges with the economic-class war—and a new right emerges in which an intellectual cadre, the national conservatives, rallies the proletarian masses against the cultural/corporate elites. All your grandparents’ political categories get scrambled along the way.

Which is why I respectfully suggest adopting mine. Back to Brooks:

[The NatCons are wrong] to think there is a wokeist Anschluss taking over all the institutions of American life. For people who spend so much time railing about the evils of social media, they sure seem to spend an awful lot of their lives on Twitter. Ninety percent of their discourse is about the discourse. Anecdotalism was also rampant at the conference—generalizing from three anecdotes about people who got canceled to conclude that all of American life is a woke hellscape. They need to get out more.

Dreher, for his part, had no patience for that assessment:

I can’t for the life of me understand how an observer as acute as David Brooks can miss this.... I am working on a piece now about woke corruption of a major US institution, coming through the radicalization of the institution’s leadership. I have documents and videos. It is jaw-dropping stuff. And this is the sort of thing that happens in many places! Just now, I saw this interview clip from Joe Rogan in which a physician talks about the dean of a medical school asking a urologist — a urologist! — not to use the word “penis” in her lecture....

You know, or should know, that I love and respect David, but I think he is seriously mistaken here.... Again, I simply can’t comprehend the view that the woke Left, especially its stranglehold on elite institutions and networks, is largely a phantom. If David wants more anecdotes, he should read my in-box, as I hear constantly from people within all kinds of institutions who are dealing with this. Maybe he’s like proverbial frog who has been boiled too slowly to notice.

At any rate, Dreher was hardly alone. Brooks again:

The first interesting debate among the NatCons is philosophical: Should we fight to preserve the classical-liberal order or is it necessary to abandon it?

Some of the speakers at the conference were in fact classical liberals, who believe in free speech, intellectual debate, and neutral government.... But others argued that this sort of liberalism is a luxury we cannot afford. The country is under assault from a Marxist oligarchy that wants to impose its own pseudo-religious doctrine. If you try to repulse that with pallid liberalism, with weak calls for free speech and tolerance, you’ll end up getting run over by those who possess fanatical zeal, economic power, and cultural might....

[Israeli political philosopher Ofir Haivry] argued that Americans shouldn’t delude themselves into thinking that a nation is built out of high-minded liberal abstractions, like the Bill of Rights. A nation is, instead, a cultural tradition, a common language, a set of rituals and beliefs, and a religious order—a collective cultural identity....

I found myself thinking of what I was seeing as some kind of new theme park: NatCon World, a hermetically sealed dystopian universe with its own confected thrills and chills, its own illiberal rides. I tried to console myself by noting that this NatCon theme park is the brainchild of a few isolated intellectuals with a screwy view of American politics and history. But the disconcerting reality is that America’s rarified NatCon World is just one piece of a larger illiberal populist revolt that is strong and rising.

Said revolt was vigorous enough to set off Andrew Sullivan:

...look, I understand the impulse here. I’m as agonized as anyone over the woke over-reach, in every field of life, gutting the core principles of our system of government in favor of identitarian ressentiment. And yes, the fight was started by the far left’s capture of the media... corporate HR, and the entire education establishment. It’s maddening to see this ignored, denied, glossed over, or tolerated — especially by cowardly liberals, incapable of wresting free.

But the contempt for liberal discourse, the disdain for norms, the resilient cult-worship of a deranged tyrant, and the banning of books? The discrediting of fair elections, the deployment of violent rhetoric and imagery, the QAnon madness, the continued support for Trump’s self-evident insanity? No, no, and no, sir.

Sully advises staying the liberal course:

There is no way through illiberalism to a functioning democracy. Our society is too deeply diverse in every respect. And the fight back against wokery is slowly winning over public opinion, as the latest elections show. There are viable future Republicans who are not as nuts as Trump. And the only way to defeat the far left is by rallying the middle - which we cannot do if the GOP turns off the very independent, moderate suburban voters we need.

To my mind, much hinges on whether the latest elections actually show this. Mere anti-wokery is not an adequate substitute for a hearty liberalism. Postliberalism of some kind could be, and it stands to reason that people were implicitly calling out to the newly elected governor of Virginia to exercise power to put the progressive postliberals down. There is an alliance at the edges of progressive liberalism and conservative postliberalism, it would seem, against attacks upon both by progressive postliberals. Alas, as Tanner Greer relates:

About a year ago I met with a young post-liberal who expressed a passionate loathing of everything American. American culture was not home to her. And how could it be? New England born, Ivy-educated, committed to the politics of the “common good” — here was a spiritual descendant of the Puritans if there ever was one. But of course all the other Puritans, whose religion now runs woke, would not have her. She has no place at their table. This outcast was instead forced into the other coalition, the coalition led by the raucous individualists of the backcountry tradition. Enemies of one’s enemies are friends they say, but tactical allies make poor bosom-mates. My post-liberal friend has no choice but to work for the living antitheses of her deepest convictions.

That is the problem of the New Right. I doubt most New Righters feel quite so alienated from the Trumpfolk they lead, but her problem is theirs.

Of course the raucous backcountry individualists were the source of the liberal order - individual rights, the culture of tolerance, markets, and existential equality. So it's either work for the living antitheses of her postliberalism, or the living antitheses of her conservatism. Since the latter have articluated that they want her destruction, it's hardly a choice.

Problem or not, liberalism seems to be foundering among the conservatives as well as the progressives. Whether that foundering should be prevented or embraced is a point of contention between Brooks and Sullivan on one side and Dreher and Bovard on the other, but all agree that it is happening, and all agree that it is a response to the progressive postliberal takeover of the institutions. Since that includes the institution that is culture, it should be clear that pace Scott Reyburn in Part I, postliberal art does indeed exist. It is the art of the art institutions, reinforcing the progressive postliberal narrative.


Douglas Bowker

December 8, 2021, 2:23 PM

You have been really hitting it out of the park with this series. Not that I agree with all the details, but that is decidedly beside the point; it's the overall scope that is what's really working! That addenda/afterword at the end of the essay was an especially powerful synthesis.



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