Illiberal Conservatism

Introduction: The Rebirth of History

In 1989, a young and then unknown scholar named Francis Fukuyama published a short article in the National Interest with the provocative title “The End of History?”  In less than ten pages, the young Fukuyama argued that the collapse of the Berlin Wall signaled a dramatic shift in human affairs.  Before, the global community had been defined by great ideological conflicts between dramatically different conceptions of the world—culminating in the epochal twentieth-century conflict between fascism, liberal capitalism and communism—but now we had entered a period where only one ideology still held any sway.  Liberal capitalism had out-fought, out-produced and out-manipulated its various competitors and was now the only tenable universal political ideology.  Fukuyama argues that, with its ascendency, we essentially reached the “end of history.” Human affairs would go on, but the great ideological struggles have passed. Politics, to the extent it still matters, will largely be about technocratic issues within liberal democratic polities oriented by neoliberal internationalism (carefully analyzed by Quinn Slobodian’s great new book Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism).  The political left and right will largely consist of liberals arguing for a slightly more expansive or slightly more constrained welfare state, while accepting that they have to remain competitive within an increasingly international context, governed by market-encasing trade laws and regulations.

The caricatured view of Fukuyama’s essay, and its excellent 1992 sequel in the lengthy book The End of History and the Last Man, suggests that he was little more than a thoughtless apologist for the neoliberal status quo. But that belies the impressive depth one finds in Fukuyama’s work, even as far back as the initial essay.  He observes that the lack of public recognition—or, to invoke the Greek word favored by Fukuyama, thymos—many endure in liberal capitalist societies may well make the public yearn for history again.  He invokes the specter of Friedrich Nietzsche’s last men: well cared for individuals concerned with health and menial pleasures, who have little opportunity to commit their lives to any higher cause.  Interestingly, Fukuyama goes on to predict that if history does indeed begin again it will be prompted not by the political left, but by an illiberal political right. The nostalgic desire for a time of greater meaning and struggle, when one could risk life itself for values that ran older and deeper than the mere self-interestedness of liberal democracy, would propel conservatives to restart history once again.  Like the great conservative thinker Russell Kirk, author of The Conservative Mind, Fukuyama was aware of the profound and underappreciated role that boredom can play in generating truly historical changes. As he puts it at the conclusion of his seminal essay:

The end of history will be a very sad time. The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands. In the post-historical period there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history. I can feel in myself, and see in others around me, a powerful nostalgia for the time when history existed. Such nostalgia, in fact, will continue to fuel competition and conflict even in the post-historical world for some time to come. Even though I recognize its inevitability, I have the most ambivalent feelings for the civilization that has been created in Europe since 1945, with its north Atlantic and Asian offshoots. Perhaps this very prospect of centuries of boredom at the end of history will serve to get history started once again.

At a social and political level, Fukuyama’s prophecy has recently been borne out by the emergence and rapid rise of what I have elsewhere called post-modern conservatism. Rather than rehash those arguments here, I will analyze the work of a growing number of influential illiberal conservative intellectuals.  Though many of the arguments put forward by illiberal figures border on incoherence (and occasionally have disturbing subtexts) the work of authors like Patrick Deneen and Yoram Hazony is at a different level. They offer compelling reasons why we should regard the liberal project as in crisis, or even as having failed outright. Understanding their positions is crucial if liberals on the left (such as myself) and on the right are to muster intellectual defenses against increasingly sophisticated and hostile attacks.

The Ascendency of Illiberal Conservatism

While I do not agree with Corey Robin that conservatism is a “reactionary” mindset, invariably predisposed to illiberal sentiments, even in the modern era illiberalism has remained a consistent temptation for many conservative thinkers.  Think of Leo Strauss’ lukewarm relationship with liberal democracy and its promotion of the liberties of the moderns over the ancients; John Finnis’ distaste for liberalism’s permissive dismissal of natural laws against homosexuality; and Alasdair Macintyre’s critiques of nihilistic individualism and defense of communitarian traditionalism (Macintyre is not truly a conservative, but he has a huge influence on right wing intellectuals).  But very few of these figures were willing to condemn liberalism outright. Whether from concern about endorsing authoritarianism, or an unwillingness to entirely abandon liberalism’s promise of liberty through permissive rights against the state, these thinkers always kept one foot firmly planted in the liberal camp.

This is less true of the recent swathe of illiberal conservatives, who are increasingly willing to openly herald or celebrate the end of liberal institutions and liberalism as an ideology. Patrick Deneen is a Professor at the University of Notre Dame, where he earlier received acclaim as an articulate defender of traditionalism and Roman Catholicism à la Macintyre.  Deneen made headlines when he released his provocative book Why Liberalism Failed in early 2018, earning praise from many, but expressions of consternation even from some on the liberal right.  This book drew on his earlier lectures and writings on the same theme, many of which gradually moved from tepid critiques of liberalism to the more overt eulogies of conservatism found in the book. Yoram Hazony is a modern Orthodox Jew, Bible scholar and President of Israel’s Herzl Institute. He recently published his controversial book The Virtue of Nationalism to both furious controversy and applause. Hazony followed up with a number of provocative essays about abandoning liberalism in favor of a “conservative democracy,” arguing that “liberal principles have brought us to a dead end.” These books, and their affiliated lectures and essays, constitute perhaps the most overt and articulate rejections of liberalism developed by conservative thinkers in some time.

What is immediately striking about both Deneen and Hazony’s books is their brevity and style.  Why Liberalism Failed and The Virtue of Nationalism both deal with colossal philosophical and empirical issues, but are relatively brief by academic standards. They largely eschew the plodding and scholarly styles favored by the earlier and more lukewarm conservative critics in favor of audacity and polemic.

Deneen makes the esoteric claim that the real founder of liberalism was not a political theorist or politician, but the philosopher of science Francis Bacon.  Bacon’s mantra that “knowledge is power” prompted human beings to increasingly see themselves as isolated individuals, whose goal was to understand the world, that we might better control it for our ends. We abandoned earlier religious conceptions of ourselves as natural beings, embedded in organic hierarchies organized by lengthy traditions with affiliated sets of virtues and responsibilities.  Instead, we saw ourselves as private rulers of our own tiny domains, responsible for the pursuit of our own mundane pleasures.  The best way to enable this pursuit was to grant people a great deal of liberty, which in turn necessitated the dissolution of earlier hierarchies and the traditions which supported them.  Deneen argues that in many ways this was beneficial, since it led to the collapse of unjustifiable hierarchies, which repressed racial minorities, women and so on. But it also led to the growth of a bureaucratic state, whose job it was to ensure the liberties of all people were coordinated and managed. Liberal states were also notably undemocratic, since the public couldn’t be trusted not to infringe on the standard package of liberal rights. Politics at the “end of history” therefore became more or less what Fukuyama argued it would: a choice between a slightly larger or smaller welfare state. In an innovative move, Deneen also argues that liberal democracies engendered ever greater inequality by encasing market processes and the accumulation of wealth from interference by democratic polities. This was done under the auspices of protecting Lockean-style property rights. Given all this, Deneen argues that we should not be surprised that liberalism has failed. It eradicated meaningful social hierarchies and traditions by promising liberty and equality for all. In practice, it has only managed to deliver bureaucratically managed freedom and increasing inequality.  Deneen therefore concludes Why Liberalism Failed with an argument for returning to smaller scale, well-integrated communities, in which traditional norms can be upheld by more participatory politics, unconstrained by liberal restraints.

Yoram Hazony’s The Virtue of Nationalism argues for similar conclusions in a different vein. He claims that the political history of the modern world has been defined by a conflict between two competing visions of the global order. The first is the Westphalian conception of a world of independent nation states, each free to pursue its own traditions and cultural practices within a well-defined territory. The second is the imperial project of an international order, which enforces liberal norms such as multiculturalism, open borders and individualism.  Hazony argues that, since the end of the Second World War, the nationalist conception has retreated before the might of liberal internationalism, embodied in institutions such as the European Union and promulgated by liberal superpowers such as the United States.  The ascendency of liberal internationalism has led to a decline in religious affiliation and an emphasis on the family, a dismissal of national traditions and the belief that private individuals and their desires are the sole locus of political legitimacy. By contrast, Hazony argues for the virtue of nationalism: allowing different countries to pursue their own conceptions of the good life in their own ways. But Hazony goes further than this in arguing for a “conservative democracy,” which he regards as the best fit for the nationalist outlook. A conservative democracy would emphasize public religion, education in the traditions and faith of the nation, a rejection of international institutions, a highly qualified support for the market economy and an insistence that immigrants (and one suspects other domestic minorities, though this is never stated expressly) integrate into the national polity.


I will set aside the question here of whether Deneen and Hazony are right that liberalism is in crisis or has failed. Instead, I will ask what motivates them to argue for such positions. Both authors maintain that liberalism has produced a crisis of meaning. Its individualism and permissiveness have led to the breakdown of hierarchies and traditions that provided a great deal of existential support for many people.  Liberalism has also produced greater fragmentation, is largely undemocratic and generates immense inequalities. It therefore needs to join its earlier competitors as a historical relic, and give way to a more meaningful conservative kind of politics that can provide for the deeper needs of political communities around the globe.

There is something to these critiques, as evidenced by the pushback against liberalism occurring in many developed states across the globe.  But these conservative arguments are not the solution to the problems facing us today, which run even deeper than any political ideology. The challenges facing developed countries—climate change, rapid technological changes and growing doubt about the metaphysical salience of traditional religions, which leads to cynicism on the one hand and fundamentalism on the other—are global in nature and cannot be resolved by turning to conservative solutions which were untenable even in their heyday. Which solutions might be viable is a question for another essay.

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  1. “In the post-historical period there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history.”

    ha, show’s what Mr. Fukiyama knew! now if you’ll excuse me, I have to decide whether to watch half a dozen ripoffs of The Wonder Years tonight, half a dozen reboots of shows contemporaneous to The Wonder Years, or half a dozen shows set in the time of The Wonder Years. ah screw it, I think all just watch that PG-13 re-editing of an R-rated movie that adds a framing device featuring Fred Savage reprising his role in The Princess Bride.

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