Liberalism and postliberalism
First, let me address a terminological matter that will not throw off readers who have been closely following the recent debate over postliberalism, but does sometimes confuse those who are not familiar with it. Pilkington frequently refers to the “liberal conservative” approach to cultural and economic issues. American readers who use the word “liberal” to connote views of the kind associated with the Democratic Party are liable to misunderstand him. They may find the phrase oxymoronic, or perhaps will suppose that Pilkington must be referring to socially liberal Republicans or the like. But “liberal conservative” is not intended to refer to such people (or not them alone, anyway), and the phrase is perfectly sensible when properly understood.
In political philosophy, the word “liberal” has a broader sense than it has in contemporary American politics. It refers to a broad tradition that goes back to thinkers like John Locke, Adam Smith, and John Stuart Mill, and that has among its fundamental themes individualism, the thesis that political authority is the product of a social contract, and the principle that the state ought to be neutral between competing religious doctrines. Secondary themes would be an emphasis on the market economy and limited government, though these are not per se liberal. (To be sure, doctrinaire or ideological versions of market economics and limited government are essentially liberal, but my point is that a non-liberal could favor non-doctrinaire or non-ideological policies of a free market or limited government sort.) In the twentieth century, thinkers like John Rawls took liberalism in a more egalitarian direction, and thinkers like Robert Nozick took it in a more radically libertarian direction. In the American context, the word “liberalism” has come to be associated with egalitarian liberalism in particular. But in reality, that kind of liberalism is just one species within a wider genus.
Now, many modern conservatives are liberals in the broader sense in question. They are not egalitarian liberals and they are not libertarian liberals, but they are still liberals in the sense that they regard the work of thinkers like Locke and Smith as foundational to a sound political philosophy, and more or less take for granted liberalism’s commitment to individualism, the idea of political authority as deriving from contract, and state neutrality on matters of religion. This is especially true of conservatives influenced by the “fusionism” of Frank Meyer, which came to be associated with William F. Buckley’s National Review. Fusionism is essentially the idea that a commitment to individual liberty as understood in the Lockean tradition can and ought to be “fused” with a commitment to traditional morality as enshrined in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
“Liberal conservatives” in this sense are, accordingly, as prone as libertarians are to argue for market-based approaches to social problems, and to see government action as itself part of the problem rather than a possible solution. Accordingly, they deploy the rhetoric of “freedom” as often as, or even more often than, they appeal to tradition, family, or religion. That they would put Edmund Burke alongside Locke and Smith in their pantheon of early modern thinkers, and prefer F. A. Hayek to Nozick or Ayn Rand among contemporary free-marketers, is what makes their liberalism “conservative.” But, again, it is still a kind of liberalism in the broad sense.
Now, the postliberal Right is defined by its rejection of liberalism in this broad sense no less than in the narrow sense, and thus by its rejection of fusionism and any other attempt to marry conservatism to the liberalism of Locke, Smith, and Co. For postliberals, the paradigmatic political philosophers are thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas. For theoretical articulation and defense of the foundations of political morality, they would look to Thomistic natural law theory (or something in that ballpark) rather than Lockean natural rights theory. They take the family rather than the individual to be the basic unit of society, and regard the state as a natural institution rather than the product of a social contract. In addition, Catholic postliberals tend toward the “integralist” position that it is preferable at least in theory for the state to favor the Church rather than to remain neutral on matters of religion. (Whether it is better in practice, and exactly what it would look like for the state to favor the Church, are complicated matters that .)
Naturally, the views of individual thinkers of either a liberal conservative sort or a postliberal sort are bound to be more complicated than this summary indicates. A liberal conservative might count Aristotle and Aquinas as influences too, and a postliberal might acknowledge that there are insights to be drawn from a Burke or a Hayek. What I am describing here are the general tendencies and basic commitments that differentiate the two points of view.
I wouldn’t want to put words in Pilkington’s mouth, and perhaps he would disagree with or qualify some of what I’ve said so far. But that is how I understand liberal conservatism and postliberalism, and I am supposing that that is more or less how he understands them too.
From culture to economics and back again
In my own essay, I discussed the famous Marxist distinction between the economic “base” of society and the political, legal, and cultural “superstructure” constructed on that base. The distinction provides the organizing theme of Pilkington’s article, and he appeals to it in order to characterize the different approaches to economics and culture represented by Marxism, liberal conservatism, and postliberalism.
The Marxist position, of course, is that the economic base determines everything else. Law, politics, and culture merely function to keep in place the prevailing economic order and its ruling class, and have no other significance. By contrast, liberal conservatives, says Pilkington, take the economic and cultural spheres to be autonomous. They take the market economy to be a neutral wealth-generating mechanism that can and should be left to itself or at most tinkered with slightly so as to improve its output. They take the real action to be at the level of culture, and they think that advancing their goals in that sphere is simply a matter of convincing people to adopt them by making good arguments (as opposed, say, to changing basic economic structures).
Postliberalism, says Pilkington, rejects both of these positions. Like Marxism and unlike liberal conservatism, it holds that economics influences culture. But, unlike Marxism, it holds that culture also influences economics. Hence, like liberal conservatism and unlike Marxism, it rejects economic reductionism and takes culture and argumentation to enjoy some independence of economic factors. But it also rejects the liberal conservative view of the economy as a neutral mechanism that should largely be left alone. Securing cultural goals requires economic change, and not just making good arguments. In short, economics and culture significantly affect one another, so that policy cannot focus just on one to the exclusion of the other.
So far I warmly agree with Pilkington, though there is a terminological difference between us, albeit one which is – probably – merely terminological rather than substantive. Throughout his essay, Pilkington retains the Marxist jargon of economic “base” and cultural “superstructure.” Again, he rejects Marxism’s claims about their relationship, and emphasizes their mutual influence. But to keep referring to economics as the “base” leaves the impression that it is still somehow more fundamental. I imagine that Pilkington does not intend this, and that he retains the terminology merely for ease of exposition. But I would prefer to speak of economic and cultural “spheres” (or some such term) rather than maintain the loaded terminology of “base” and “superstructure.”
On the other hand, some of what Pilkington says might at least give some the impression that he does indeed take economics to be fundamental. In particular, he discusses several examples of phenomena that might at first glance appear to have purely cultural significance, but where, he argues, closer inspection will reveal underlying economic factors. To be sure, his point may be merely that economics and culture interpenetrate in these cases, without either being the more fundamental. And I suspect that that is indeed his view. But it seems to me that even in the cases he discusses, the cultural factors are indeed the more fundamental ones, even if he is right to note that there are crucial economic factors as well.
Hence, consider what Pilkington has to say about modern changes in family structure. Liberal conservatives, he says, attribute this mainly to moral decline, and in part to the welfare state. But he notes that other crucial factors are the dramatic decline in the birth rate and the entry of women into the modern workforce. Pilkington emphasizes that while women worked in earlier ages (for example, in agriculture) what is distinctive about modern women’s workplace is that it has separated work from home and family life. Now, these changes are economic in nature. Hence, it seems, we have a clear case where economics has driven cultural change.
That is fair enough as far as it goes. But I’d point out that the story doesn’t end there. For why have birth rates declined, and why have women entered the modern work force in such large numbers? The answer, in large part, has to do with the legalization of birth control and the rise of modern feminism, with the political and legal changes that went along with it. And those factors, in turn, were the result of cultural changes. Notice too that, despite the tremendous influence of Western capitalism on the rest of the world, the birth rate and the economic situation of women has not changed nearly as radically in Muslim countries. Why not? Because of legal, political, and cultural factors. So, as I argued in my earlier essay, we see once again that lurking behind economic factors are deeper cultural preconditions.
Something similar can be said even of the most seemingly crudely material of factors. For example, it is often claimed that the birth control pill changed sexual mores more than all the propaganda of sexual revolutionaries could have. And the pill is a drug that directly affects body chemistry, not people’s ideas. But the birth control pill did not fall from the sky. It had to be invented, produced, and marketed. And its mere existence doesn’t force anyone to take it. Tobacco also still exists, but the number of people using it has dramatically declined. Nor does the fact that tobacco poses health risks entirely explain that, because alcohol and marijuana also pose risks, yet alcohol use has not greatly declined, whereas marijuana use has increased.
The reason, of course, is that there has been vastly greater cultural pressure against tobacco use than against alcohol use, and also cultural pressure in favor of marijuana use. And cultural pressures are also responsible for the development and use of the pill. It was precisely because of changes in sexual attitudes that the pill was developed, marketed, and used in the first place, even if this in turn went on to accelerate the changes in sexual attitudes. Hence even the pill is not a purely material factor, nor indeed even primarily material in nature, all things considered.
Pilkington also argues that changes in economic policy can improve the health of the family, and that improving the health of the family will in turn bring about cultural changes. For example, “studies show that strong families tend to vote more conservative than atomised individuals.” Hence, he suggests, “it may not be too much of an exaggeration to say, given how integrated personal and economic life are in today’s intensive consumption-production economy, the only way to engage in meaningful reforms is to tackle them first at an economic level.”
But here too the idea that economic policy is more basic than culture, or even equally basic, collapses on closer inspection. For suppose we were to try to follow Pilkington’s advice and focus for a time just on the economic question of what sorts of policies would contribute to strengthening the family. What counts as “family”? And what counts as a “strong” family? Woke ideologues will have answers to those questions, and they will be very different from the answers a postliberal would give. And the difference in the answers will reflect different assumptions of a moral and philosophical nature – in short, of a cultural nature. Yet again, lurking behind purportedly purely economic considerations are deeper cultural issues.
Similar points can be made in response to Pilkington’s other examples. And then there is the fact that, no matter how important some specific economic reform is, actually to achieve it will require political action, which requires changing minds. That, in turn, will require convincing a critical mass of people of the importance of such-and-such economic factors relative to other considerations. And that is an essentially philosophical task rather than an economic one.
Pilkington may well agree with this. Indeed, as I have discussed elsewhere, Pilkington is well aware of the philosophical assumptions that underlie economic lines of argument. Again, there may at the end of the day be less of a substantive difference between our views than there is a difference of emphasis, or perhaps at most of short-term strategy. And I certainly do not deny that economics is a crucial part of a complete postliberal program. But that is not because economics is more basic than culture, or even because it is equally basic. It is because culture works in part through economics, and indeed because economics is itself a part of culture.