Decline and Persistence

But that the present order of things was not to be taken for granted, that it presupposed a certain harmony between the world and the guardians of culture, that this harmony could always be disrupted, and that world history taken as a whole by no means furthered what was desirable, rational, and beautiful in the life of man, but at best only occasionally tolerated it as an exception—all this they did not realize.

Hermann Hesse, The Glass Bead Game

Yascha Mounk had the political philospher Michael Walzer on his Good Fight podcast a few days ago, and they had an exchange about the rise of the so-called “post-liberal” political thinkers. The full version is too long to quote here, but a few highlights:


According to people like Patrick Deneen, liberalism is responsible for everything that has gone on in the modern world. And what is most amazing about his work is all the factors that he omits in his description of the rise of modernity, like the Protestant Reformation, which is perhaps the truest source of the individual and individualism—the individual and his God. The Protestants invented that singular pronoun. The gathered congregation, the critique of hierarchy—all that comes from the religious side, not from secular liberal ideology. And Deneen just doesn’t talk about it. One crucial aspect of individualism (which already also begins in primitive forms among the Protestant radicals) is the equality of women. Genuine equality of women, the end of the patriarchal regime, is going to change the way families live and the way familial life is organized. And they continually invoke the traditional family which has been destroyed by liberalism, and they are not prepared to say that women are not equals, they’re not prepared to say that.


…When you look in a little bit more detail it is absolutely unclear what that new society would look like. One of the things that strikes me is that a lot of the post-liberals are either Catholics, or Catholic converts, and they seem to think that this would be a majoritarian society in which the elect few, or perhaps the democratic many, impose their religious values on the rest of society in the name of the higher good. But it’s an irksome fact that virtually all of the societies in which they operate have become very secular, and Catholics, in particular, are a minority in the United States. And so it’s very, very hard to actually make heads or tails of what it is that this post-liberal society would look like. This still does not appear to be an obvious competitor ideology, and the travails of the post-liberals in making up a competitor ideology seems only to underline that point.

Even if you are not a post-liberal, narratives of decline are a major force. We live within a minefield of hypothetical declines–cultural, theological, economic, political, environmental–and they are usually related. The type who embraces one declensionist explanation is more open to others. It’s a pessimism with a cross-partisan appeal, even if disagreement over what to do about it fractures any consensus about the decline itself.

But I have found myself thinking lately that while some theories of decline might have historical merit, most post-liberals have the ethical import of the decline backwards. Perhaps the declensionists are in the grip of the most essential Enlightenment idea: that the world could be anything other than disordered, bleak, knocked off its marginal high points. Bad things happen, and keep happening. What we are dealing with is not a decline but a baseline. From this vantage, restoration from the decline looks something more like a fantasy, wanting to return to a set of unattainable circumstances. This is not a fatalism–the point isn’t to step back and do nothing–but an approach to the future without a sense of revenge, and without a bitterness at having lost something that could have been. Good work (whatever that work is) can still happen, if it accepts that it will coexist with rough and fragile circumstances–just like any progress that results.

Tags despair pessimism optimism reversal