Regime Change: Toward a Postliberal Future
By Patrick J. Deneen.
Sentinel, 2023.
Hardcover, 288 pages, $30.

Reviewed by Mark T. Mitchell.

Patrick Deneen’s 2018 book Why Liberalism Failed was a broadside to the regnant political apparatus and prompted a vigorous debate by declaring the imminent demise of liberalism. Liberalism failed, according to Deneen, because it succumbed to a fatal flaw that was present from the very beginning. In short, liberalism failed because it succeeded. In Deneen’s telling, the essence of liberalism is the desire for liberation. In recent centuries in the West, this rage to liberation has permeated every aspect of our lives. And while it is obviously true that emancipation from some limits is good and beneficial, a wholesale attempt to jettison all limits eventually led to the social breakdown that is frighteningly obvious to anyone paying attention. Indeed, the west seems to be disintegrating, and citizens are increasingly wondering how, not if, the crash will come. 

In his new book, Regime Change: Toward a Postliberal Future, Deneen continues his attack on liberalism and focuses specifically on a particular manifestation of the liberal pathology, namely, the adversarial relationship between the so-called elites and the people. Deneen argues that the west is led by a class of haughty elites who think of themselves as morally superior to the common rabble and therefore deserving of their power, status, and privilege. The task at hand, according to Deneen, is to cultivate a new and healthy elite whose interests and aims are integrated with the interests and aims of the common people. This so-called “common-good conservatism” will signal a radically reoriented polity, a mixed constitution in Aristotle’s parlance, and will foster the real possibility of human flourishing for elites and non-elites alike. 

Lest readers imagine that with his provocative title Deneen is summoning the Jacobin demon, he informs us early on that the change he is championing is not the demolition of the U.S. Constitution or a wholesale destruction of the basic political infrastructure that has been painstakingly developed in the west over centuries. Instead, this so-called regime change is “the peaceful but vigorous overthrow of a corrupt and corrupting liberal ruling class and the creation of a postliberal order in which existing political forms can remain in place, as long as a fundamentally different ethos informs those institutions and the personnel who populate key offices and positions.” Thus the problem is not the political apparatus but rather the social structures and attitudes that have produced a corrupt elite. 

Of course, corrupt elites will not relinquish their power willingly. Thus achievement of Deneen’s vision will require “a confrontational stance of the people toward the elites.” In this confrontation the people will need “to force” the elites to change their ways. This will require a “fundamental upheaval” of the current social order by a “muscular populism.” The language of power is obvious here, and Deneen demonstrates what many would call a refreshing realism when it comes to political change. However, there are others who might get a slightly queasy feeling when anyone—even, and perhaps especially, a thinker who clearly describes many of our most vexing pathologies—talks about using “Machiavellian means to achieve Aristotelian ends.” Seeking the Ring of Power, if even to do good, is a corrupting enterprise. In fact, the possession of remarkable powers is inseparable from the corruption of the elites Deneen rightly criticizes. This raises a serious practical problem: who will wield the power? Deneen holds out hope that a sort of popular revolt against the elites will generate conditions adequate to produce a new and virtuous elite. As Deneen puts it, the goal is “a genuine blending of the classes in which the elites, under pressure from the people, actually take on the features of aristoi and nobility—excellence, virtue, magnanimity, and a concern for the common good—and by means of which the people are elevated as a result.”

But is that likely? Deneen is right that our current elites are largely corrupt. But is there evidence that the people are doing better? It seems pretty clear that the people as a whole are demoralized, brutalized, and often infantilized and seeking relief in chemicals and screens. And if some leaders happen to emerge from the people, this would suggest that they are exhibiting the characteristics of elites, and this presents us with a practical problem with Deneen’s typology, namely, how to distinguish elites from the common people. As abstractions, these categories are useful. But how does one distinguish an elite from a common man in real terms? Is Deneen himself an elite? He certainly has the credentials. But if he is, then given the dearth of virtuous elites, it would seem that rather than writing the elites off as universally corrupt, it might be better to identify any remaining virtuous elites in positions of influence and find ways to leverage their impact. 

Part of the difficulty here is the abstract nature of work and ownership in our post-industrial economy and therefore a lack of clear and concrete markers of elite status. The early American Republic was constituted around the ideal of the ownership of real, productive property. The Marxist revolution never took hold because there was, as Tocqueville observed, no proletarians in America. Virtually all citizens owned property and therefore enjoyed a degree of independence that has largely disappeared among the so-called working classes. At the same time that property ownership as a fact and as an aspiration has declined, property itself has become increasingly abstracted and etherealized, thus undermining the integrity and independence of both elites and the common man. As such, if Deneen wants to engender a truly vibrant middle-class that can provide an effective counter to elite power, he must champion the reinvigoration of property, for political power and property ownership have always traveled together. 

There are, of course, questions that are more philosophical than practical. In Why Liberalism Failed, Deneen argues that at root, liberalism is based on a false philosophical anthropology. This is the key to Deneen’s critique of liberalism. Many faulted his original book because they thought Deneen was asserting an irresponsibly broad definition of liberalism. But for the sake of argument, let’s set aside the term “liberalism” and simply describe the phenomenon that seeks liberation from all limits and constraints. In such a view, all obligations are illegitimate unless they are chosen by the individual. There is no human nature; there is no natural law; there are no ends that teleologically order a human life. The essence of a human being is nothing other than the unadulterated will. Whether one calls this liberalism or something else, it is a pretty accurate description of the West today. Thus the key question turns on the nature of reality. Specifically, do humans possess natures that are normative and teleologically structured? If so, the language of common good—a term Deneen seeks to recover—can be intelligibly derived. However, if human nature is merely a construct representing nothing more than the aggregate of individual desires, there is no common good strictly speaking. There is only a consensus backed by force of the majority or the police. 

Thus what we might call a classical and Christian conception of reality is necessary to escape the centrifugal forces that Deneen describes. But a conception of the world adequate to counter the disintegrating energies that characterize western societies requires a vision of reality that is fundamentally opposed to the reigning emancipationist view. In other words, a change of “ethos” is inadequate, and I think this becomes clear if we take a step back and examine the philosophical causes standing behind this ideology Deneen calls “liberalism.” Deneen’s critique is deeply informed by Tocqueville, who saw the world being remade before his eyes. The old aristocratic social forms were being replaced by an empire of equality. The hierarchical vision of the world was torn apart and cast aside. In its place “a flattened world arose: the wide-open spaces of liberal freedom, a vast and widening playground for the project of self-creation.”

A flattened world upon which the will of individuals can enjoy the widest scope of play has replaced a hierarchically ordered cosmos—a creation in an older terminology—that provided structure, stability, and direction for individuals and societies. Here we come to the real root of our current plight: politics is invariably shaped by cosmology, and cosmology is shaped by myth. Thus the sweeping change Deneen hopes to see is not possible in political terms alone. Deneen intuits this where in the final section of his final chapter he turns to religion. 

Of course, it is in the area of religion that a cosmological vision capable of supporting a hierarchical view of the cosmos will be nourished and developed. But religion, simply put, is not adequate. All religions are not the same. All cosmological visions do not yield the same results. All myths do not yield aristocratic forms. Deneen concludes by appealing to Jean Daniélou, the twentieth-century French Jesuit who was part of a group of Roman Catholic scholars seeking to overcome what they saw as the errors of Neo-Scholasticism and reinvigorate the teachings of the Church Fathers. Central to their project was an attempt to revivify the Great Tradition by, as one commentator has put it, “reintegrating nature and the supernatural.” This division between nature and supernature, though exacerbated by much of Protestant theology, has roots that reach back into the medieval world. A proper integration of the natural and supernatural is a necessary condition for countering the flattened cosmology out of which liberalism emerges. This requires replacing the invariably flattening twin myths of materialism and progress. 

Thus the integration that lies at the very heart of any adequate regime change is an integration Deneen fails to discern. A flattened cosmological vision—and the political and social consequences that emerged from that vision—must be replaced by an older and more adequate vision of the cosmos that recognizes the interpenetration of the material and the spiritual. It does not make a hard distinction between the natural world and the supernatural world, and likely will even deny the efficacy of those terms. Instead, this alternative vision begins with a simple, yet profound, claim: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” The same God fashioned the various aspects of the cosmos, the higher and the lower, which were unified in the microcosm of the first man, who was created as a union of the dust of the earth and the breath of God. In man the higher and lower come together. Matter and spirit are joined. And though the union was fractured by sin, the restoration of the original harmony was made possible with the advent of the second Adam, who was the Word made flesh. God became man. The higher was unified with the lower, and the possibility of harmony of the cosmos was restored. This is a cosmological vision that could support the legitimate integration of elites and common people Deneen desires. Incidentally, such a model could also generate a work like Dante’s Divine Comedy, an epic poem that simply could not be imagined by a mind formed in a flattened post-Copernican world.

This all seems like a far cry from politics, and it is if we make a hard distinction between the natural and the supernatural, if we ignore the flattening myth that has captured the modern imagination. Of course, the ideology Deneen calls liberalism is a serious problem. The caustic acids of disintegration are at work everywhere. But seeking to replace one set of derelict elites with another is merely seeking a political solution to a problem that is ultimately rooted in a false and flattened cosmology. In other words, cosmology and what one might call a “cosmological imagination” will determine the available social and political alternatives. Our current flattened cosmological vision—born of an egalitarian myth—requires that elites both deny their elite status and incumbent responsibilities all while simultaneously singing the praises of radical egalitarianism. Thus one cannot recover classical forms of political life—including a proper integration of elites and the common people—without recovering classical cosmology, which is hierarchical, complex, and beautiful and requires both submission and participation. A new and healthy elite will only emerge in the wake of a refurbished cosmological imagination. For that we must begin with a return to the theology of the Fathers, who were not constrained by the flattened cosmology of modernity or the false dichotomies of Neo-Scholasticism. Instead, their minds were in tune with a cosmological order—begotten of the true myth—that joins the higher and the lower, matter and spirit, temporal and eternal under the loving rule of an Incarnate God who by taking on flesh, dying, and descending into Hell made possible, through His resurrection and ascension, the reunion—or reintegration—of heaven and earth. That cosmological vision will provide a pattern by which a healthy elite will acknowledge both its status and responsibilities, and the common people will grasp that following virtuous leaders is not degrading but rather a source of nobility.  

Mark T. Mitchell serves as the Dean of Academic Affairs and teaches courses in political theory at Patrick Henry College. He is the author of several books including Plutocratic Socialism: The Future of Private Property and the Fate of the Middle Class and Power and Purity: The Unholy Marriage That Spawned America’s Social Justice Warriors. He is the co-founder of the web-zine Front Porch Republic.

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