Standing Athwart History, Redux: Review of Patrick Deneen’s “Regime Change”

January 13, 2023; Patrick Deneen (Photo by Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame)

For those of a conservative cast of mind, few Hollywood films present a more thought-provoking scenario than M. Night Shyamalan’s 2004 drama The Village. The movie is mostly set in a Puritan-styled community surrounded on all sides by dense forest, its boundaries policed by monstrous creatures that ostensibly prowl the woods. Its young people grow up together, learning old folkways and marrying amongst themselves, without ever venturing beyond its borders. But despite the seemingly claustrophobic setting, this is no dystopia. Indeed, the residents seem to be thriving in their seclusion. They have traditions, rituals, spiritual unity—all the virtues of a community unmarked by world-historical upheaval.

Or so it seems. In a critical twist, audiences learn that, despite the characters’ archaic dress and lifestyle, the events onscreen are actually playing out in the present day. The village itself is a grand experiment in social reordering: a group of world-scarred Americans, mourning the losses of their loved ones and the horrors of modernity, has chosen to build an intentional community deep within the American wilderness. Those same Americans now comprise the village’s class of elders—its elites—and their children now know nothing else than the seemingly timeless town they inhabit. And yet this equilibrium is unstable: when a shocking act of violence takes place, one girl (blind) is chosen to leave the village, reenter modernity, and return with needed medicine. The film ends on an abrupt, inconclusive note, leaving uncertain how the village will now relate to its world. Time has intruded, and the old naivete has been broken.

Though unappreciated by critics in its time, Shyamalan’s eerie little parable is more relevant now than ever before. As mass culture grows increasingly inhospitable to certain traditional beliefs and ways of life, many conservatives can’t help asking the questions the film invites. Could such a project ever work? Were its elders wrong to shield their sons and daughters from the world’s cruelty? Is their way of life the ideal?

Questions like these kept coming to mind while I read Regime Change: Toward a Postliberal Future (available here), Notre Dame political theorist Patrick Deneen’s follow-up to his bestselling Why Liberalism Failed. It is a book that places me in a rather curious position: Deneen presents and defends a large number of practical policy proposals with which I would agree, but situates them within a profoundly questionable theoretical horizon.

Regime Change is really two books in one. The first is a sort-of sequel to Why Liberalism Failed that doubles down on the critique of the status quo, and offers up a number of practical policy alternatives to the vague localism that concluded the prior volume. The second is an elevated theoretical argument for the right relationship of elites (“the few”) to the populace they serve (“the many”).

All of this ends up juxtaposed against liberalism’s alleged “view that a new elite would and should be a force for advancement and progress in a modernizing world.” For Deneen, a good governing elite isn’t one that tries to push or drag a fundamentally conservative populace to a destination of its own devising, but one that serves the common good by working on behalf of that populace to restore peace, order, and flourishing. Such flourishing is, crucially, anti-progressive—that is, it rejects the sense of historical directionality characteristic of classical liberalism, progressive liberalism, and Marxism alike. Enter Deneen’s own brand of conservatism, which he terms “common-good conservatism.”

Notably, this view of elite-populace relations represents an evolution in Deneen’s own thinking, evoking Adrian Vermeule’s provocative call for an “integration from within”—that is, the displacement of reigning elites by better-formed ones, who will be poised to turn the tables on their ideological rivals when the time is right. That call first surfaced in Vermeule’s 2018 review of Why Liberalism Failed for American Affairs, and it is clear that Deneen has taken the proposal to heart.

But where Vermeule hinted at a strategy of recruiting committed conservatives into entry-level government positions, who could then work their way up through the bureaucracy, Regime Change leaves the playbook largely ambiguous. This isn’t surprising. For any ambitious project of “elite replacement,” the devil will be in the details—after all, a generation of evangelical Protestant efforts to “integrate from within” has yielded only mixed results.

In any case, what policies should this new, rightly formed elite pursue? Here, Deneen rolls out mostly the standard playbook of “new right” or “realignment” policy proposals—active state involvement in the economy to curtail the excesses of the market, promotion of manufacturing, opposition to policies that corrode family formation and life, limitations on uncontrolled immigration, promotion of trade schools, breakup of monopolies, opposition to unchecked economic globalization, and so forth. While many of these ideas will be familiar to those well read in this space, Deneen introduces some new twists—a proposal to financially incentivize high-powered professionals to work in small towns is particularly distinctive. Though likely to meet with hand-wringing from progressives and libertarians, the vast majority of these ideas fall well within the mainstream of conservative policy proposals, and a great deal of them would be worth implementing.

While these policy prescriptions are the book’s most concrete contributions, it’s impossible to review a book entitled Regime Change without exploring its larger theoretical apparatus. And plenty can be said on that front.

A virtually ubiquitous criticism of Why Liberalism Failed was that the volume never really bothered to define its central bugbear. It is, of course, rather odd to write a book about “liberalism” without clearly stipulating what one means by the term. At least as Deneen used the concept, though, “liberalism” seemed to function more as synecdoche for “radical autonomy,” or a felt sense of independence from tradition, constraint, and order. In his words, “the most basic and distinctive aspect of liberalism . . . is to base politics upon the idea of voluntarism—the unfettered and autonomous choice of individuals.”

In Regime Change, this seems to have shifted. In the opening pages of the volume, Deneen writes that “the architects of liberalism . . . believed that a regime governed by a new commitment could overcome the divide [between the few and the many]: the priority of progress.” And true to form, the word “liberalism” in this sequel volume mostly functions as synecdoche for “belief in progress.”

No doubt Deneen would classify both “radical autonomy” and “belief in progress” as aspects of a more generalized “liberalism.” But these two topics are quite different, and the attempt to treat them under the same heading confuses things significantly. Matters are certainly not improved by Deneen’s insistence that philosopher Edmund Burke’s self-identification as “liberal” must be construed as something other than “liberal” in Deneen’s own pejorative sense of the term: “For Burke . . . [w]riting in a pre-ideological age, to be liberal was simply to partake in the civilized inheritance of the Christian West.” But isn’t this precisely how many classical liberals today (“right-liberals,” in Deneen’s negative formulation) understand themselves? Even when both books are taken together, it is difficult to discern a reliable criterion for when someone or something is in fact “liberal” in Deneen’s negative sense. The term seems to function mostly as an outgrouping mechanism than a philosophical descriptor.

But Regime Change raises a more fundamental question than this. Taken as a whole, it is a book virtually defined by its antipathy to “the modern ideology of ‘progress.’” Deneen calls expressly for “a movement that begins with, and is defined by, a rejection of the ideological pursuit of progress along with the baleful political, economic, social, and psychological costs of that pursuit.”

Like “liberalism,” “progress” here is a murkily defined concept—Deneen insists that rejecting progress as an “ideology” need not “entail rejection of reform and improvement”—and so again the word serves more as a Rorschach inkblot than a precise descriptor. Set that aside, though. How far does this critique of progress qua progress extend? The issue is worth unpacking at some length.

Early on, Deneen criticizes “the aim of transforming societies ‘without a history’ into progressive populations or nations,” a project “pursued often in the name of ‘human rights.’” In speaking of cultures “without a history,” Deneen seems to be alluding to the anthropological conception of “traditional societies,” often associated with Mircea Eliade—that is, populations lacking what modern scholars would term “historical consciousness.”

But significantly, Eliade argued that it was Judaism—with its account of God’s covenant with the Jewish people being uniquely instantiated on Sinai—and Christianity, with its emphasis on the historical Resurrection of Jesus Christ and His promised return, that introduced “linearity” into human thinking about history. If Eliade was right, then historical consciousness and the possibility of “progress” are consequences of the Jewish/Christian legacy itself—not of some late-arriving “liberalism.” Is Deneen committed to the position that it was illicit to end the practice of human sacrifices at Tenochtitlan, or to outlaw suttee in British India? Perhaps he is, but that would be an odd position for a traditionally-minded Catholic to take. Any account of natural law—of universally binding moral standards applicable across contexts and cultures—will tend to disrupt cultures whose norms diverge from those standards.

I suspect that Deneen probably intends here to critique Western efforts to export progressive views on LGBT sexual identities. Fair enough. But in that case, one requires a finer-grained heuristic than general opposition to “progress” and valorization of the absence of historical consciousness.

Indeed, eschewing talk of progress altogether makes it difficult to know what to make of the phenomenon of doctrinal development—a linchpin of Catholic, and indeed all Christian, thought. It was Alasdair MacIntyre—no liberal—who wrote that “when a tradition is in good order it is always partly constituted by an argument about the goods the pursuit of which gives to that tradition its particular point and purpose. . . Traditions, when vital, embody continuities of conflict. Indeed when a tradition becomes Burkean, it is always dead or dying.” It is the phenomenon of an argument extended in time—in history—that gives tradition its shape and beauty. And doctrinal development is never neatly cordoned off from its conditioning historical circumstances.

But perhaps, Deneen’s argument suggests, most people would be happier as participants in more traditional societies, set off from the winds of time—maybe something like Shyamalan’s Village, a community without a history. Let’s provisionally grant the point. Getting there, though, won’t be easy.

In a passage destined to be controversial, Deneen endorses “the application of Machiavellian means to achieve Aristotelian ends”—by which, in context, he means “powerful political resistance by the populace against the natural advantages of the elite.” That’s a seemingly narrow scope. But just how far does this sort of ends-justify-the-means reasoning extend?

In Shyamalan’s film, the mythos of the “monsters” that stalk the village’s surrounding forest is a fiction created and sustained by the town’s elites—that is, its ruling elders. This can be read as a quintessentially Machiavellian tactic—masking the truth in an effort to shore up the power of the community’s leaders—placed in the service of fundamentally Aristotelian ends (the preservation of the common good of the village community and young people, specifically by keeping them safe from the world’s violence). Is that justifiable? Can a society that claims to be founded on the “common good” embrace such cynicism not just as a tragic consequence of a fallen world, but as a prescriptive duty?

And paradoxically, isn’t this way of thinking, in its own way, its own ideology of progress? Progress from an ostensibly failed status quo “back”—or rather forward—to a kind of reconstructed premodernity? Any revivified “Aristotelian” political order that is secured by self-consciously Machiavellian methods has already abandoned the theological habits of thought that conditioned the thinking of premodern political leaders, as Andrew Willard Jones’s Before Church and State demonstrates. If their statements are to be taken at face value, those early-medieval leaders didn’t see themselves as engaged in realpolitik, but as engaged in the restoration of a prior ontological peace tragically disrupted by disorder. Hence, for better or worse, Deneen’s Aristotelian/Machiavellian project would represent something novel—less a retrieval than a historically-conscious recreation. And so the book, in the end, offers up simply another “progressive” trajectory of its own.

Is that a trajectory worth following? Deneen seems to be under the impression that most Americans are on board with the paradigm he proposes: “what most ordinary people instinctively seek . . . is stability, order, continuity, and a sense of gratitude for the past and obligation toward the future.” All of that seems right enough. But that list is non-exhaustive. There will always be those people who long to create, to explore, to extend the traditions which they have received. A society animated by the principles of the common good must take them into account, too.

One of the best insights offered by Deneen and other self-described postliberals is that “freedom” is never really a coherent ideal in abstracto: it becomes valuable insofar as it is freedom to do something worthwhile. Something similar can be said for principles like “stability” and “order.” They are valuable insofar as they provide the grounding and context within human beings can rightly do human things, like building and designing and rethinking and adventuring. They are the necessary conditions for flourishing in history, this side of the eschaton.

What could that look like? Consider for instance Robert Hugh Benson’s 1911 sci-fi novel, The Dawn of All, which explores the possibility of a worldwide Catholic civilization. Arrestingly, Benson’s vision is not a world frozen in time, but one alive with the possibilities of human creativity under God—where flying ships traverse the skies and “medicine, chemistry, and mental health” all thrive. “It’s been found by experience that no really fine work can be done except by those who are familiar with divine things because it’s only those who see things all round, who have, that is to say, a really comprehensive intuition,” remarks one character.

That is the kind of vision that might inspire the Regime Change Deneen seeks—a vision not of stopping history and change, but of rooting them in the logic of eternity. It is a rather more appealing vision than the cold, supposedly timeless forests of The Village.

In the end, this is not a book I would recommend to interlocutors curious about what the “new right” is all about. As someone committed to advancing many of the policies for which Deneen advocates—and who shares many of his philosophical commitments—it is painful to read a case for a “postliberal future” that fails to excite or inspire. Any successful postliberal theory needs bigger and brighter dreams than this.

John Ehrett is a 2021 James Wilson Fellow. He is an attorney and writer in Washington, D.C., where he lives with his wife and son. His work has previously appeared in American Affairs, Public Discourse, and the Claremont Review of Books, among other venues.
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