Towards the Post-Liberal Synthesis

David Rodrigo/Dubai, United Arab Emirates

Belief in democracy is down among the young. Political division is up. America’s power and prestige is waning. Many foreign countries are openly and confidently transitioning away from the liberal democratic model. China is thriving, maybe even winning, as an authoritarian party-state. Even America has elected an apparent illiberal strong-man.

Voices of authority are abandoning the pretense of objectivity and cheering on obstruction of elected governments by “deep state” actors, while wide swaths of the public are becoming obsessed with conspiracy theories as trust in any fact-checked consensus declines. Even well-educated people are becoming disillusioned with the system.

Many incompatible narratives are put forward about what’s going on, and where we are headed. When it’s all done, in the light of hindsight, the inevitability of it all will become clear. The uncertainty will fade, and everyone will have always known. But in the thick of the historical moment, things are not so clear at all.

How should we understand this historical moment as it unfolds? Not in hindsight, once the dust has settled, but from a live perspective, which allows for intervention.

The essence of the moment is elusive. Everyone has their own answer to the question of the times. At Palladium, ours is a particular question for the future:

What is the Post-Liberal Synthesis?

That is, the direction of history forces us to consider the looming failure of liberalism, and the need for a graceful restructuring that salvages its strengths. We think this can take the form of a coherent post-liberal synthesis, which is an actual philosophical advance, not simply the chronological sequent.

The uncertain nature of the moment is the chaotic process of different historical possibilities vying for substantiation. Without the development of a coherent post-liberal synthesis, this chaotic movement away from liberalism will be entirely negative. But with careful philosophical advancement, much more positive outcomes are viable.

This magazine is our attempt to answer the above question. This essay is about what we mean by it.

The Current International Order

A big political transition is at hand within the American-led West and beyond. It seems possible that liberalism itself, the philosophical foundation of the modernist West, is caught on the “out” side of this transition. Everyone’s thinking it, and we’re not the only ones saying it. Even true believers admit that liberalism is threatened.

But let’s define our terms. What is this “liberalism” thing? How is it threatened?

Liberalism is generally defined as a political ideology that emphasizes a synthesis of individual rights, free markets, free speech, freedom of culture and religion, primacy of the individual over society, democracy, limited government, division of powers, checks and balances, and separation of church and state.

The modern mainstream consensus includes additional elements, like social justice, social and economic equality, deconstruction of old-fashioned social structures, and so on.

To make this more concrete, we are talking not just about these ideas, but the current liberal international order and the entire body of social and political practice they legitimate.

Since its victories in the Second World War, the late 1960s, and the Cold War, this liberal order has increasingly dominated the international scene, using soft power and international institutions, backed by more aggressive diplomatic and military interventions, to push its preferred ideology.

But with the quagmire of the War on Terror, the rise of extremist and nationalist ideologies, stagnation of the economy, the deep politicization and sclerosis of institutions, the rise of China as a world power, the resurgence of Russia, and the move of other countries away from liberalism, the liberal order is looking shaky. Even its proponents are talking and acting as if it’s in crisis.

Possibilities of Failure and Success

So the current world sociopolitical order is threatened. We thus seem to exist in an historical moment of possibility, where things could go this way or that, depending on how all the factors play out. What are the possible outcomes?

We see three possibilities for how liberalism might be threatened, which need to be distinguished and addressed separately:

  1. It is possible that liberalism isn’t as threatened as the more hysterical public commentators seem to think. It will inevitably get over this temporary bump of problems, and continue to be the end of history. In this case, liberalism would continue to be empirically vindicated.
  2. Liberalism could be mortally threatened by an accident of history—for example, an unforeseen stagnation of the economy or imminent loss of a war due to contingent factors, which somehow causes a collapse of liberalism, but does not constitute a refutation.
  3. Liberalism could be assailed not by contingent external factors, but fundamental internal factors of its own causing. Liberalism, as a way of ordering society and as an ontology with which we view the world, could have some error. Such an error would be a vulnerability, either to deliberate attack by reactionary elements, or to accidental buildup of some social problem that liberalism is constrained from noticing or solving.

The first and second possibilities, a temporary bump or even collapse due to contingent factors, is not so interesting from an intellectual perspective. If that is all that is happening, the course is clear: We must simply fight on with careful confidence and not drop the ball.

But the third possibility opens up some interesting questions. If the failure of liberalism is predetermined by its own flaws, then fighting harder for it is ultimately futile. And yet, it would still seem we must do something, because a full collapse of the liberal international order is not acceptable.

If liberalism collapses without replacement, or is overtaken by misguided revolutionaries, the result is a much more chaotic and uncertain world, potentially for a long time. We could see a large increase of terrorism, extremist ideology, tyranny, economic collapse, poverty and starvation, and even full-scale war. Or we might take a hard USSR-style haircut and transition to government by military espionage gangsters like Putin.

Even if liberalism is intrinsically flawed, we still need to fight against the possibility of this collapse. But for what?

The Fourth Possibility

There is a fourth possibility: that liberalism is flawed, but can be upgraded or replaced in an orderly fashion. If somehow we can identify the key flaws with more certainty before the possible moment of crisis, we could begin the theoretical, philosophical, and organizational work to gracefully transition from liberalism to some post-liberal synthesis.

Such a synthesis must preserve most of the value and key practical victories of liberalism, and would have to follow in the liberal intellectual tradition. But it would also have to resolve liberalism’s systemic flaws, to be able to pick up the slack, and make headway on the key problems which have stalled its progress.

This is not to be underestimated as a serious philosophical challenge, but it also seems solvable given a correct recognition of the problem and a coordinated, first-rate intellectual effort.

The major dimension of the problem is that liberalism is the unchallenged dominant paradigm of Western thought. It is nearly impossible to escape its ontologies and framings. It is thus very difficult to critique or replace.

As a longstanding dominant paradigm, liberalism’s defenses and rationalizations are many, its flaws obscured not just by redirection of attention, but by the sheer intellectual difficulty of thought outside the paradigm. As such, the vast majority of claimed flaws advanced by critics of liberalism are merely half-baked phantasms, perhaps inspired by some truth, but so twisted by imprecision and bad motives that they become mostly useless for locating the necessary insights.

We have our suspicions about the true flaws in liberalism, and what might be the key insights and ways of thinking of a new paradigm. But the above concerns demand that any treatment of these subjects be made in a more careful and rigorous way than would fit in this essay. Here we are simply introducing our questions and our program of investigation, rather than attempting to come forth with a full critique and alternative to liberal thought.

No forecast is ever certain, but at Palladium, we are acting on this fourth possibility, that liberalism is flawed, but can be productively replaced. Our project is therefore to give deep consideration to both the strengths and weaknesses of liberalism, and to gather the insights that will become the post-liberal synthesis.

Features of the Post-Liberal Synthesis

So, what will this post-liberal synthesis look like? We have some ideas:

First of all, it will not be an attempt to create the One True Ideology. It will self-consciously be an incremental improvement in how we think about how to organize society. It will be an upgrade of liberalism, which throws out and replaces many key assumptions and concepts, but does not abandon its key realized victories. It will be built in the understanding that it, too, will have problems, and will need to be replaced with a new and again superior synthesis in the future.

Second, to be properly post-liberal, as opposed to just illiberal, it must be based on a serious and deep engagement with the liberal tradition. It will have to understand and salvage as much of the good of liberalism and progressivism as possible. It will have to engage with and address the rationales for liberalism, only some of which are explicitly stated.

Third, the most obvious source of relevant critique of liberalism, where we will find the most important problems to fix and address, will be in the current opposition. From both left and right, the post-liberal synthesis must integrate the critiques of capitalism, systems of oppression, democracy, fake and controlled public discourse, valueless secularism, government overgrowth, fiat money, etc. Even if currently frustrating and destructive, the opponents of liberalism have many legitimate concerns and insights to offer, which should be incorporated into the synthesis.

Fourth, instead of being based on unattainable ideals and thought experiments about states of nature that never happened, it should be thoroughly rooted in a clear examination of how power and governance and social control actually work, and are actually experienced, and in the real processes of how political order actually comes about.

Finally, while being a self-consciously temporary and pragmatic mashup of ideas, the post-liberal synthesis must be something new, unique, and coherent in its own right, capable of inspiring real belief, especially among the elite. It can’t be just a mashup of ideas that don’t fit together; it must be the most coherent worldview we can produce, a real philosophical advance over liberalism, while fitting the constraints and opportunities of the current historical moment.

Let’s not have any illusions: even while the forces of history push towards a post-liberal synthesis, such a major step forward in the social philosophy of society, no matter how humble and pragmatic, is inherently a herculean task. It will not happen by accident, or by default, but will take deliberate effort. A willful philosophical development is required to gracefully navigate this historical transition.

Palladium’s Role

As we gaze into the future, trying to apprehend our collective destiny, the post-liberal synthesis reaches back and inspires us to make it a reality. We want to contribute to its creation.

Our most practical and immediate project is to explore the future of governance and society from as open-minded a perspective as we can muster, guided by the aspirational framework of the post-liberal synthesis:

We will explore what we can of the trends in the world, especially where they might offer important lessons we are in need of learning. Which institutions and empires are gaining ground, which are losing? How is practice evolving to better fit reality? Where are systems breaking down and why? Who has power over whom, and where are they taking us?

We will engage with the liberal tradition in all its forms, from the Founding of the American Republic and before, to New Deal progressivism, to liberal internationalist projects like the European Union, to its latest resurgence in public discourse. Our aim is to understand and appreciate, but also to critique, deconstruct, scrap for parts, and rebuild.

We will do our best to charitably get to the root of the various oppositions to liberalism, and understand their worldviews, right and left. The Internet offers up an unprecedented array of intellectual material at maximal convenience. What are they saying? Which of their critiques are valid? What do they propose? What are the concrete insights they bring to the table, and can those be liberated from that context and added to our post-liberal parts bin?

Our ultimate project aside, we hope to at least offer a valuable and stimulating discourse on the future of governance and society. We look forward to sharing it with you.

Jonah Bennett is the co-founder and former editor-in-chief of Palladium Magazine. You can follow him at @BennettJonah.