That Mysterious Thing, the “Liberal State”: A Response to Andrew Willard Jones, Marc Barnes, and Jacob Fareed Imam

That Mysterious Thing, the “Liberal State”: A Response to Andrew Willard Jones, Marc Barnes, and Jacob Fareed Imam August 31, 2019

Though I don’t know if I’ve used the term before, a frequent subject of this column is Christian postliberalism—in the simplest terms, theological and philosophical efforts by Christians to challenge the premises of the current sociopolitical order. According to its critics, that current order—often labeled “liberalism”—prioritizes individual equality and autonomy, generally rejects the legitimacy of arguments that directly appeal to tradition as a justification, and broadly seeks to eradicate barriers to individuals’ full self-actualization.

Postliberalism, then, is an attempt to think beyond this post-Soviet international consensus—what might also be called cosmopolitanism, neoliberalism, globalism, liquid modernity, late capitalism, liberal internationalism, or what have you. Catholic integralism, the view that the institutional Catholic church ought to enjoy preeminent authority in all societies where matters of faith and morals are concerned, is a species of postliberalism. So too is the sprawling Anglo-Catholic socialist-localist vision of John Milbank and Adrian Pabst, or the Old Testament-styled notion of “theonomy” promoted by Calvinists like R.J. Rushdoony. (This particular impulse in political theory is generally alien to the Lutheran tradition, which prioritizes the distinction between the “left-hand kingdom” of the Law and the “right-hand kingdom” of the Gospel.)

To be sure, Christians aren’t the only ones engaged in postliberal thinking. Israeli Jewish intellectual Yoram Hazony, author of the thought-provoking The Virtue of Nationalism, has been a longtime critic of liberalism’s premises, and recently spearheaded the first National Conservatism Conference in Washington, D.C. That conference, in turn, sparked a flurry of debate both online and off.

In the midst of that conversation, one piece stands out in my mind as a particularly interesting—and lucidly written—example of postliberal critique. In an extended essay in the online journal Postliberal Thought, Andrew Willard Jones (author of the integralist ur-text Before Church and State), Marc Barnes (creator of the excellent Bad Catholic blog), and Jacob Fareed Imam make the case that the any “postliberal” project that affirms the legitimacy of the modern nation-state—that is, the kind of postliberalism on display at Hazony’s conference—is fundamentally flawed. Their argument deserves a careful hearing.

As a threshold matter, it’s worth noting that there are generally two types of postliberal thinker: the localist postliberal and the universalist postliberal. The former tends to be Protestant or Jewish; the latter Catholic (or, perhaps, Islamic). Beyond Hazony’s Virtue of Nationalism, Mark Mitchell’s The Limits of Liberalism is a good example of the “localist postliberal” position; the integralists and those in their camp—here, Jones, Barnes, and Imam—tend to hold more universalizing views.

Localist postliberals prioritize the devolution of political and social power to geographically and demographically smaller units of social life—that is, communities—who govern themselves in accordance with the will of their members. The limited scale of these communities allows for fuller participation in political life by community members and more appropriately tailored decision-making processes. Put more simply: if you know your neighbors, you have a far better sense of what—in political terms—will help them flourish. (Full disclosure: with the caveat that I tend broadly toward skepticism of state power not restrained by something like a constitutional order, I’m sympathetic to this camp.). On this account, the contemporary nation-state is a kind of relative good: it is better that citizens of a particular territory govern themselves than that they are governed by distant bureaucrats with no real stake in the community’s welfare.

A brief aside: I’ve encountered some critics who’ve argued that Mitchell’s “localist postliberalism” is itself merely another form of liberalism. This charge, to my mind, is not persuasive. For one thing, the devolution of political power to smaller-scale units of authority easily leads to the exercise of that power in “iillberal” ways—that is, ways that may restrict individual autonomy. (This is called in American law the “police power” of the state.) A city ordinance banning all adult entertainment is surely not “liberal” in any sense of the word.  Or, viewing the issue from a different angle, if a universal Catholic political order underpinned primarily by the “spirit of Vatican II”does not approximate a “liberal” society, the term “liberal” has lost all referent. That is to say, the charge “you’re not really postliberal” cuts both ways: it is the interpretation of a particular tradition, not merely formal adherence to it, which determines whether a political order is liberal or illiberal. There is no inherent guarantee that an officially “Catholic” society will tend toward the latter pole rather than the former.

All that to say: “liberal” is, at least to some extent, a matter of degree and not simply of kind. Individual autonomous choice, in some form or another, is a feature of all human societies; the salient question is the extent to which those choices are restricted by a concept of the common good. Much more could be said about this.

To return to the topic at hand: univeralist postliberals like Jones, Barnes, and Imam broadly reject the thesis “that the nation-state is the natural, or at least the most evolved and presently appropriate form of political order and that, as a result, healthy, good, and just politics must ultimately stem from a salutary form of nationalism.” They argue that “[i]f a person’s primary focus of social identification is to a collection of 350 million people, the unity that he finds there might be rooted in the pursuit of pleasure, or power, or glory, or equality, but it won’t be rooted in the pursuit of the common good.” A loftier ontological-political ideal, they argue, is required.

The argument outlined by Jones, Barnes, and Imam in their essay generally tracks the following rough syllogism.

  1. From a Christian perspective, legitimate political life is grounded in the triad of the married couple, the local community, and the universal Church.
  2. The modern nation-state is a fundamentally illegitimate political structure.
  3. Articulations of postliberalism that do not entail a rejection of the legitimacy of the nation-state as a structure are alien to any Christian politics.

There’s a lot I agree with in that first prong, particularly the authors’ (qualified) defense of political localism: “[L]ocal, personal communities are better able than large ones to distinguish between right and wrong, just and unjust. These communities are better able than large and impersonal ones to justly and effectively enforce their rules. Indeed, local communities are the human groupings actually capable of orienting individuals toward the common good. Face-to-face communities are where politics is most properly politics.”

Indeed. That recognition, as it were, is the animating impulse of localist postliberalism—or, in the terms of contemporary American political discourse, federalism or subsidiarity. To resort to Lutheran categories, Jones, Barnes, and Imam implicitly acknowledge the disjunction between the justice of the “left-hand kingdom” (that is, the maintenance of civic order through the imposition of the rule of law) and the justice of the “right-hand kingdom” (the authority of the Church to absolve, or not absolve, sins—and to “speak[] with authority in matters of faith and morals”). This is uncontroversial.

But the second prong is more problematic. Throughout the essay, Jones, Barnes, and Imam level broadside after broadside against the “liberal state.” They contend that “liberal states are characterized by police forces, a rational and bureaucratic legal system, and the gradual elimination of all extra-legal and therefore rival sources of authority and order. Below them, this means the steady destruction of the family, the community, the city.” They further posit that “the state cannot make sense of real relationships, but only abstractions like rights, debts, contracts, and, indeed, races, ethnicities, languages. Real people are invisible to the state.” The closest they come to a definition of their target is “a sovereign entity with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force and united through the constructs of ethnicity and mass culture.”

But what does this notion of the “liberal state” mean in real terms, especially juxtaposed against the concept of “communities” as the authors define them? Local communities surely share a common culture. And it is far from clear what—beyond sheer scale—differentiates local communities “justly and effectively enforc[ing] their rules” from nation-states exercising “a monopoly on the legitimate use of force.”

Along similar lines, the authors’ opening salvo, which argues that a society in which “a person’s primary focus of social identification is to a collection of 350 million people” must be divorced from the common good, is a volley without a clear target. The view that national identification must be primary—above all others—is an essentially fascistic stance that, I have no doubt, would be alien to most who align, more or less, with Hazony’s “national conservatism.” Again, “scale” or “size” seems to be the underlying concept driving the argument, but Jones, Barnes, and Imam steadfastly refuse to make the point overt. This is because, for their critique of the “national conservative” camp to succeed, their “liberal state” must mean something very specific.

To wit: the postliberal critique leveled by Jones, Barnes, and Imam only holds on a very particular positivist view of the state, one which teaches that that laws are morally binding only because the sovereign (whether a Hobbesian monarch or a Lockean democratic majority) promulgates them. But the targets of the authors’ critique plainly do not hold that view: much of the whole “national conservatism” movement is rooted in the notion that policies are not good simply because the sovereign says so. After all, nation-states join supranational institutions and structures, such as the European Union or the International Monetary Fund, through positive law (the diktat of the sovereign) and yet a repudiation of those supranational institutions rests at the heart of “national conservatism.” Underlying that repudiation is the national conservatives’ affirmation of a kind of “localist postliberalism” as a matter of natural law—that which inherently corresponds to human flourishing. So where is the real disagreement between Jones/Barnes/Imam and Hazony’s “national conservatives”?

If everyone in this conversation is really on the same page—that is, if everyone agrees that “left-hand kingdom” political authority (that is, police power to govern human evil) is best exercised in smaller spheres than it is at present—the whole debate collapses down to a more interesting (and Tocquevillian) dispute about the appropriate size of any given political community. The same thing happens if everyone agrees that the “positivist” account of law is fundamentally flawed: the whole debate becomes a conversation about the concept of natural law.

If there is really no meaningful disagreement on these points, it would seem that the recent spate of attacks on the concept of the “liberal state” ought to be reframed as accounts of either the tragic consequences of the loss of natural-law reasoning (which both Richard Weaver and Arthur Allen Leff provided half a century ago, albeit from different angles) or the monstrous mushrooming of the administrative state. And so the entire force of the neo-integralist critique is undercut for lack of novelty.

Surely the committed integralist or other universalist postliberal, with his commitment to a more Catholic society oriented overtly toward the common good, wants more than what the last few decades of conservative philosophical critique have provided. But if Jones, Barnes, and Imam really do seek to articulate a universalizing alternative to the modern nation-state—an alternative that, to be distinct from the status quo, must presumably involve the exercise of legitimate force by an entity or entities that transcend individual communities—they must provide a substantive account of that alternative.

What, after all, does it mean to assert that “[b]y thinking beyond the founding principles of modern politics, we re-imagine the world as one in which what is most valuable is not the state, nor any other mass construct, but the real, embedded, sometimes equal and sometimes unequal relationships in which men and women live and move”? Surely, the authors would reject a libertarian or anarcho-capitalist politics merely narrated in Catholic terms (the Acton Institute’s fusionism regularly comes in for criticism in these quarters).  But if there is something more here than simply a way of thinking about politics—if the authors’ argument is to be read as an actual attempt to call for change within the inhabited sociopolitical environment—an alternative must be described in concrete terms. Those concrete terms are what the “national conservatives”—for better or for worse—have little difficulty articulating.

In short, when evaluated as a challenge to the emerging “national conservative” paradigm, the authors’ argument really brings no substantive critique to the table. There is plenty of fire in their denunciations of the “nation-state” as the root of modern political evils—but if their true aspiration is the realization of a fully Catholic polity, one in which coercive force is mediated from pontiff to individual person, one wishes they would’ve had the courage of their convictions to say so. Alas, such audacity is in vanishingly short supply.

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