my reply to his American Postliberal article. I thank him for it and am happy to post it here:
Feser's response to my piece is a welcome effort at clarification. We need such clarification if postliberalism and related thought is to move from the abstract to the concrete. Here I will address the key points, as best I can.
Regarding the base versus superstructure distinction, we should probably better determine what we are talking about. When Marxists discuss them – typically in the broader context of their ‘science’ of ‘dialectical materialism’ – they appear to be engaged in something in between metaphysics and political economy. As Feser says, for them the economy truly determines all – and it does so on an a priori basis.
I would suggest that, to the extent that postliberals choose to use this terminology, they completely abandon any a priori conceptions beyond the terminology itself. Base and superstructure should be seen as metaphors – rather loose metaphors in many ways – to organise thinking on political and policy issues. Feser's terminology of spheres is probably, as he says, less loaded. On the other hand, the base and superstructure terminology plugs into decades of political economy discussion.
More importantly is the question of cause. Here we truly descend into the realm of the practical. Yes, the norms that we may seek to set are grounded metaphysically in the natural law tradition. But beyond this, everything is empirical. The problem, of course, is that social science cannot really determine cause in any meaningful sense. The best that can be done is to establish correlation – and, perhaps, in the best case correlation at a lag (econometricians call this ‘Granger causality’. In such questions, we are all Humeans whether we like it or not.
Feser hints that I may be emphasising economic causality over cultural in my initial essay – and I think he is correct. Some of this is rhetorical – I want to shake conservatives into seeing these connections. But some of it is not. I do increasingly think that many of the developments we are seeing in our culture are being driven primarily by liberal economic relations being pushed past the point where they yield anything positive.
Take the example of birth rates in Islamic countries that Feser references. It is no doubt true that birth rates in Muslim countries are higher than in post-Christian countries, but this is only true on a diminishing basis. Many Muslim countries simply remain economically undeveloped. In these countries, people live for most part as they have for centuries. In the countries that have made efforts in the direction of economic development – most notably Iran – birth rates have fallen precipitously.
In 1978, when the Iranian Revolution was launched, Iran's fertility rate was just above 6.3. Recall, this was the fertility rate in an Iran run by the famously rather secular Shah. Today, after years of economic modernisation, the fertility rate is well below replacement at 1.7. Recall, in contrast to the Shah's secular state, this is Iran under the Mullahs – complete with its infamous morality police. If we look at indicators of economic change, this starts to make sense. At the time of the Revolution less than 5% of Iranian women were enrolled in tertiary schooling. Today this number is around 60%. Iran is a fascinating case study because it is a model in tension with itself. The revolutionaries wanted to modernise society but maintain an Islamic state. The results have been, shall we say, mixed.
But let us think about this in positive terms. Imagine if we could run a successful family policy that pushed the fertility rate back up to around 3 (similar to what exists in Israel today, but we would hope one more spread out and less concentrated amongst the Haredi). In such a society, the average family would have three children and the state would be promoting this as something great. Could this possibly not drastically change the culture? It seems highly unlikely to me that a nihilistic, hyperconsumer culture that we have today would fit in such a society. People would simply not have time to be interested in such frivolities and much of it would be driven back underground, the province of bohemians and oddballs.
On the other hand, do we really think that a conservative cultural turn would vastly impact these trends? We had a conservative revolution of sorts in the late-1970s. And even though the 1980s and 1990s were far more culturally conservative than the 1960s and 1970s, none of the fundamental forces were reversed. Divorce continued to rise, family formation fell, birth rates fell – and so on. As with Iran, the packaging can look as conservative as you please, but it matters little if people are not living it out.
A few years ago I visited Croatia. On Sunday the churches were full. I expect that attendance rates were around 80-90%. All over the towns were spontaneous Catholic shrines. The air was thick with conservative sentiment. And yet, for all that, there were few families. People were just sort of milling around aimlessly. While on the beach I looked up the fertility rate on Google. It was 1.5.