NEW POPULISM, POST-LIBERALISM, AND THE ENLIGHTENMENT
AGAINST THE CONFLATION FALLACY
In recent posts (here and here), I introduced Paul Piccone’s argument that the new populism constituted a Schmittian enemy of managerial liberalism, the ideology and organizing logic of the current ruling faction of the managerial class. I am now taking some posts to elaborate that argument. In fleshing it out, though, it would be helpful to take a post or two to clarify what is, and isn’t, being claimed (or, at least, in my interpretation). First, let’s consider how liberalism fits into this argument.
The argument certainly can be included under the broad umbrella of political theory and philosophy which has been called post-liberalism. The appeal of this nomenclature is that it indicates an exhaustion of the project of liberalism, without necessarily proposing what must replace it. In fact, those who identify with post-liberalism have a wide range of differing views about what that replacement might or should be. And, I’ll concede off the top that I continue to have a sentimental attachment to liberalism. I’m a liberal phenotype: e.g., rationalist, individualist, progressivist. But there comes a point at which intellectual honesty has to trump sentimental attachment. I have in fact offered a detailed case for how liberalism might reconstitute itself along realist lines (see my book, Darwinian Liberalism). Such a salvage operation, though, seems unlikely.
On the other hand, though, there is a serious danger in the post-liberal space. The thinking that underpins that danger is understandable given the transmutations of liberalism, but is nonetheless not only unjustified, but as I’ve said also intellectually dangerous. Or, at least, so I’ll argue, here.
The transmutation of liberalism arises from a conflict, built into liberal ideology, arising from the above highlighted characteristics: rationalism, individualism and progressivism. Individualism tends to erode the intermediary institutions, with their communal ethos, that sustain and support people, materially and emotionally, without resort to reliance upon the state. Privileging individual self-actualization over communal bonds and responsibilities erode those intermediary institutions and throw people upon the good graces of the state to fulfil such needs. (For more on this, see my extended conversation with the always thoughtful Grant Smith in the comments section, here.)
The progressive ethos in liberalism assumes that the conditions of those state-dependent individuals can and should be continually improved by the state’s intervention. This state-centred progressivism is fueled by what Thomas Sowell famously called an unconstrained vision of human potential. It’s the state’s job to ensure an always improving human condition. This has been evident in rhetoric about achieving COVID-zero, carbon-zero, racism-zero, etc. The goal becomes a perfected condition more resembling a Platonic ideal than any real human society. The endless pursuit of an unachievable goal becomes the perpetual legitimation of the state that claims to pursue it. This progressivism also flies in the face of human nature and a constrained vision of human potential, because liberalism also assumes a biologically groundless blank slate psychology.
Finally, such progressivism, sustained by the blank slate psychology, feeds into the final defining characteristic of liberalism, an idealized rationalism. As the imperative becomes ensuring the progress of state-dependent individuals — susceptible to molding, for the better Platonic ideal of society, due to their blank slate psychology — the door is opened for an ambitious rationalism (bureaucratic and instrumental) to seize control of governance on behalf of the virtuous mission: rationally molding human beings into the types of individuals who can ever-approach the rhetorically celebrated (and materially impossible) conditions of the unconstrained vision. It is by this means that the rule of the managerial class is consummated and liberalism has completed its transmutation from classical liberalism to managerial liberalism.
All this I endorse as a valid critique of liberalism. The problem arises though when many of those who belong to the post-liberal position, in rejecting liberalism, take what they believe to be the next logical step of rejecting what they take to be the cause of liberalism: the Enlightenment. (And, I concede, scholars I’ve promoted here, including Paul Piccone and the Frankfurt School, have argued along these lines, in alignment with many on the self-styled dissident right.) Intellectually, though, this is not merely an error, it is a full blown system failure. It effectively jettisons science along side liberalism. It’s hard to imagine a more destructive strategic mistake, if we’re interested in truth — which presumably is the claim of post-liberalism: transcending ideological falsehood and arriving at a true, correct understanding of human nature.
I know there are some in the post-liberal camp who would insist upon the trashing of science, too, on its own terms, out of a commitment to a religious or spiritual renaissance. I’m not unsympathetic to the perspective that maybe full empirical unpacking of the world may not be wise for the larger society. Maybe there’s a good reason that the philosopher has been historically in an awkward, sometimes even dangerous, tension with the larger society: often requiring him to disguise his deeper meaning and understanding, making it only apparent to the initiate.1 But that science should be sacrificed at the altar of religious revival I (obviously to anyone who has been a long time reader of this substack) reject as an unacceptable assault on human dignity, freedom and truth. But we can have that discussion another day.
My emphasis here is that there’s simply no need to sacrifice science with a dismissal of the Enlightenment as part of a post-liberal agenda because liberalism is not, as some seem to believe, the logical (inevitable?) political manifestation of the Enlightenment. There’s nothing inevitable about liberalism being the political expression of the Enlightenment and, ironically, the misconception that that is so is the product of an insufficiently worked out post-liberalism. To believe that liberalism is the natural political expression of the Enlightenment is to still be under the spell of liberalism.
As the old saw goes, the victors write the history. And upon the new political battlefield, presented with the rise of the Enlightenment, undoubtedly liberalism has been the victor. So, it is hardly surprising that liberalism has retroactively privileged those dimensions of the Enlightenment which seem to provide post hoc legitimization for its own political philosophy and ideological assumptions. It’s liberal scholars who have constructed the fallacious conflation between the Enlightenment and the liberal political project.
There was never anything inherently political about the Enlightenment though; it was an epistemological revolution. It introduced new ways to think about how we could establish knowledge and truth. At the risk of stating the matter a tad crudely, for the benefit of quickly moving us along to the main point of this post, that epistemological revolution would be rendered something along these lines. Pre-enlightenment epistemology assumed empirical data were evaluated through the lens of ideas (literally, dogma) while enlightenment epistemology assumed ideas were evaluated through the lens of empirical data. I’m well aware of the complications and often circular reasoning that gets trotted out in the induction-deduction debate, but there is a shift in perspective and emphasis here which characterizes the Enlightenment and its epistemological revolution. Again, these are matters of epistemology and methodology.
Whatever one’s opinion, then, on the epistemological or philosophical questions: contrary to what many, pro- and anti-, Enlightenment thinkers claim, no fixed idea of the human condition or human society naturally followed from this epistemological revolution. I’m not even convinced it necessarily entailed Weberian disenchantment of the world. But, once more, we’re bracketing that discussion for another time. The point here is that, certainly, the ideological assumptions of liberalism were in no way an inevitable political manifestation of the Enlightenment.
This confusion has been produced by liberalism’s own conflation of the French Enlightenment with the Enlightenment per se. For most people today to whisper “Enlightenment” is to invoke Descartes, Voltaire, Diderot, and Rousseau. Again, though, this is a myopic view of the history. This epistemological revolution took place under the influence of several different national cultures, and each case was influenced by the intellectual milieu of that national culture. For example, the German Enlightenment, despite the high rationalism of Kant, overall was much more influenced by Romanticism and the ideal of spiritual awakening than was the French Enlightenment. There are certainly some grounds to suggest that the French Enlightenment was influenced by the English Enlightenment, though, as Hayek long ago argued, that influence has been selectively absorbed. In general, the French have been much more likely to be impressed by Hobbes than by Burke.2
The real loss though of this liberal cherry picked, post hoc history of the Enlightenment has been the widespread – outside of a very small intellectual circle, it would be fair to say universal – ignorance about the remarkable Scottish version of the Enlightenment. Yes, within a very small register, Adam Smith is something of a household name. And an even smaller circle may have heard of David Hume. (Though I once did ask a class of about forty MA communication students, and not one had ever heard of Hume.) But even among the few who could muster both those names, very few would know that they were just part of a major intellectual movement, nor could cite the likes of, for instance, Joseph Black, Adam Ferguson, Francis Hutcheson, John Millar, Thomas Reid, or Dugald Stewart.
And why is so little known about this Scottish branch of the Enlightenment among the general, presumably educated, public in the Western world? Remember, the victors write the history, and the social theory and theory of human nature the Scots teased out of their version of the epistemological revolution not only isn’t compatible with – but is downright hostile to – the ideological assumptions of liberalism. They rejected the idea of the heroic, rationalist, deracinated individual. For them, the individual was always embedded within his social world. To speak of an individual was to speak of a person rooted in very specific, cultivated habits and customs. In this sense, also, the blank slate vision of human nature was refuted; there was no pre-socialized human individual. And perhaps most important for purposes of this discussion, the Scottish Enlightenment rejected triumphalist rationality.
This is not of course to suggest they doubted that humans were rational creatures, or that their possession of rationality – or at least its degree – distinguished humans from other animals. What they did dispute was the idea that human society was, or could be, constructed out of rational will and planning. The Scottish Enlightenment had at its core an understanding (many centuries later thoroughly confirmed by evolutionary biology and psychology) that humans are deeply social animals. This understanding led to the dismissal of individualistic explanations for social phenomena as simplistic and so misleading. Abstracting individuals from their social context, then, completely distorts social analysis and misrepresents human nature.
However, while the Scottish Enlightenment thinkers rejected what they took to be the reduction of history to individual, purposive rational actions as misleading reductionism. They did not claim that individuals were merely carried along by the flow of history. Rather it was the distinctly social practices in which such individuals were grounded that explained both the nature of their individuality and the specific forms of their life and governance. In the words of one of the eminent observers of Scottish Enlightenment political and social theory, Christopher Berry: “one of the persistent strains in their social theory is an awareness of the recalcitrance, the 'stickiness', of institutions and the fact, as they see it, that habit and custom are more decisive in shaping behaviour than reason.”3
It is this repetitiveness of the human social experience, grounded in the social facts of human institutions, customs, and traditions, creating a kind of “second nature,” equally operating beyond will, intention and reason as their “first nature,” which habitually molds humans and lays the groundwork for forms of governance and community. In one of the most famous phrases associated to the social theory of the Scottish Enlightenment, Adam Ferguson observed: “nations stumble upon establishments which are indeed the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design.”
Consider another telling passage from Berry:
Millar comments that before any Legislator could have the requisite authority “he must probably have been educated and brought up in the knowledge of those natural manners and customs which for ages perhaps have prevailed among his countrymen.” Ferguson likewise argues that “the supposed Legislator in fact only acted a superior part among numbers who were disposed to the same institutions.”
Doesn’t all this talk of the legitimate legal and political order being grounded in the institutions and customs of the underpinning organic community resonate strikingly with Schmitt’s institutionalist turn, advancing the idea that a legitimate jurisprudence needs to be underpinned by a concrete order? (Review, here.) And, as I’ve been arguing repeatedly for many posts now, it is precisely this kind of grounding in the concrete order of an organic community which is fundamental to the new populism in its existential, friend-enemy conflict with the managerial class and its managerial liberalism, transmuted out of the earlier logic of classical liberalism.
So, not only is there nothing inherently liberal in the political manifestation of the Enlightenment, as long as one doesn’t engage in the analytical error of conflating the French version with the Enlightenment tout court, but in fact at least one strain of the Enlightenment turns out to share the same political insights as Piccone and Schmitt. And, in doing so, it dovetails elegantly with the political grounding of a new populism, which to succeed must confront and ultimately defeat the culture industry, social engineering and bureaucratic paternalism ethos of the managerial class. The logic of the Scottish Enlightenment is precisely the political philosophy grounding needed to refute the premises and implications of liberalism, managerial liberalism and the managerial class.
So, there is no need for post-liberalism to jettison the Enlightenment, and as hinted at above, not only do we not have to dispense with Enlightenment thinking to move beyond the liberal tradition, but as I’ve tried to insist in earlier posts, the fruits of the epistemological revolution of the Enlightenment remains essential for such a political and theoretical transcendence of the liberal legacy. In probably my most under — appreciated(?), certainly read — post to this substack, I went into great depth to explain how idealist critiques that confuse Enlightenment materialism as accomplice to liberalism wind up succumbing to the very forces they’d set out to critique.
As I endeavored to demonstrate in my critique of Reno’s Strong Gods book, a materialist (scientific) critique of scientism leads to a theory of the managerial class. However, an idealist critique of scientism not only is in danger of confusing science and scientism, but is inclined, as with Reno, to authorize the very epistemological (naturalistic) fallacy which underpins the ideology that was initially intended to be critiqued. Redeeming the Enlightenment commitment to empirical and material reality and analysis provides the means to the kind of class analysis that avoids such self-defeating theoretical pitfalls.
I appreciate that the kinds of arguments made in that earlier post may be a tad esoteric for some. I do believe though that they’re important if one is to provide something resembling a durable foundation for the theoretical underpinning of a political alternative to the reigning hegemony of managerial liberalism.
Arthur M. Melzer, Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing (Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press, 2014).
F. A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978).
Christopher J. Berry, Social Theory of the Scottish Enlightenment (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997).