The political terms “right”, “left”, and “center” mean different things depending on the context. In a world where liberal–indeed neoliberal–values dominate these political categories have meant one thing, generally familiar to us. In what has been termed a post-liberal world–which may or may not be emerging–they would likely mean something quite different.
M.T. Steiner probed the latter concept in a recent article in Quillette.
According to the political philosopher John Gray, . . . liberal principles assume that humans on a universal basis are individualistic creatures that are destined to experience progress along meliorist lines and create better, more egalitarian societies that value the equal worth of each person. As writers and thinkers from across the political spectrum start to look beyond these axioms, a number of commentators have attempted to identify and explain the core tenets of an emerging post-liberal politics. This new brand of post-liberal politics can be divided into three strands—one on the Left, one on the Right, and one in the Center—which are united by their shared divergence from the core tenets of liberalism to varying degrees.
There’s right wing post-liberalism.
Right-wing post-liberals believe that humans are, by nature, relational beings who are better suited to pursuing virtue within their own communities than falling prey to the false promise of universal progress. For this reason, right-wing post-liberals put duty and virtue ahead of rights and liberty, and they have a tendency to rely on state power to enforce these duties and virtues.
There’s a post-liberal center.
Centrist post-liberals are less anti-liberal than those on the Right. They agree with their right-wing counterparts that liberalism has fallen short of its promises. However, they leave a larger space for individualism and egalitarianism by balancing rights and duties in society—even if they do not fully embrace either of these liberal principles.
And a post-liberal left.
Left-wing post-liberals reconcile themselves with liberalism to a greater degree than their centrist and right-wing counterparts. Unlike those on the Right, they do not reject individualism and egalitarianism altogether and instead believe that individualist, egalitarian societies based on rights and liberties can thrive—so long as these rights and liberties are guaranteed by the state and contribute to a shared notion of the common good. In this sense, left-wing post-liberals believe that rights precede duties—even if social duties are still essential for a vibrant society.
I think this categorization has merit. Though it is not quite new and different. The cluster or left, right and center is just another manifestation of the Rule of Three: people tend to organize concepts in tension along a continuum, with our minds breaking that down into three. It’s generalizable.
That does not make “left, right, and center” completely arbitrary. It does suggest that when the ground shifts the relevant Rule of Three shifts with it. In this case this means that the important thing is less the new division into three and more the nature of the shifting ground underneath. Keep your eye mainly on that.
And when you do something new comes into focus. The differences between left, right and center in Steiner’s article are not insignificant but there is less than meets the eye. In all three cases the new political categories are dealing with an underlying problem: the perceived failures of liberalism, whether conceived in terms of the baleful effects of globalism and inequality or the sense of going way too far in the realm of individual autonomy. All three of these categories are dealing with these underlying problems, with the only difference being the severity of the need to create distance from present certitudes. How fast do we need to run from the current excess?
Moreover, there is a sense that while these categories are all about some gauzy post-liberal “future” they all represent a kind of Back to the Future. Jeez, post-liberal centrism is likened to, of all people, Edmund Burke.
This emphasis on balancing liberty and responsibility in society echoes the social and political thought of Edmund Burke, who believed that humans inherit their rights and duties through their covenantal ties to those who came before them.
In this regard all three Back to the Future formulations suggest an underlying inconvenient truth about what passes for liberalism in the modern era: it is a rubber band stretched too far. As the band reverts to a more comfortable shape under the threat of snapping we will be technically moving into the future but at the same time will be revisiting some familiar territory from the past.
So I see no huge reason to declare myself a member of the post-liberal right, center or left at this point. Perhaps the author is wrong and the rubber band can go on forever. But even if he is right–and I think he is–the main event is the underlying shift not the precise point you place yourself on it. There’s some time for that.
Though if I were a Brit and I had to declare myself at this stage of the game I’d be either a Red Tory or Blue Labor. They are hardly the same thing but they create a workable tension that can be managed. It would be good for a change to have political ideas that are in a healthy tension with one another, a tension that might produce progress and not destruction.