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Ahmari and his enemies: The question of the postliberal Right

September 11th, 2019 | 4 min read

By Susannah Black Roberts

Today, Sohrab Ahmari came out with a piece describing the current conservative internal debate, and more precisely outlining his position. He begins by pointing out how thoroughly the current paradigm– on both the left-liberal and right-liberal side– is a rejection of anything that our ancestors would have recognized as politics.

‘The common good and the highest good are among the bedrock principles of classical and Christian political philosophy. It is a sign of the times that their use now elicits a parade of horribles: the Inquisition and Islamic State, Francisco Franco and Ayatollah Khomeini, Vichyism and Leninism. The arch-liberal political theorist John Rawls seems to reign over the imaginations of many, even supposedly conservative, minds, for strong metaphysical claims to the public square are widely assumed to violate its neutrality. This truism is asserted even as the critics’ intemperate reactions reveal that the liberal public square is anything but neutral—that it is bathed in its own metaphysics and theology.

‘Progressive liberals are quite open about their aim: to raze all structures that stand in the way of an empire of autonomy-maximizing norms, an empire populated by the “free individual who no longer acknowledges any limits,” as Pierre Manent has written. Conservative liberals and libertarians share in this view of the highest good: The unfettered life is the best life. Most recognize the need for some limits, at least against freedoms that harm others. But the regulative ideal remains always operative: an ideal of ever-greater autonomy won through the removal of limits.

‘Our classical and biblical heritage holds a different lesson: that we are not free merely to the degree that we are unregulated, unrestricted, and undisciplined… Freedom requires a moral and religious horizon, not just in man’s private sphere, not just at the level of culture and civil society, but also in his collective experience—that is, in the state and the political community. Critics fret that such talk risks unsettling the peace of modernity and resurrecting “a premodern ­concept of the higher good.”

‘It was precisely liberalism’s “ability to filter out the old prejudices,” one critic asserted, “that made the peace of the modern world possible.” That is a cartoonish critique.

‘It reduces millennia of religious tradition and philosophical contemplation to so many “old prejudices.” But it expresses a belief that is common enough: that liberalism has put an end to the religious conflicts of the past and ushered in an unprecedented peace by relegating faith to its proper—that is, private—sphere. To its critics, then, the new American right raises the specter of religious and moral conflicts that will imperil the peaceful freedom of the West.’

The thing about this is that it makes it clear that the project of Kantian liberalism– OG liberalism, that is– and what you might call Kojevian liberalism are doing the same thing. OG liberalism wanted privatized religion, tamed religion, in order to avoid a reprise of the 30 years’ war, where men died for public claims about God. To avoid this, OG liberalism privatized those claims, attempted to tame the love that men have for the good– which is a terrifying love.

The French political philosopher and architect of the European Union Alexandre Kojève wanted likewise to make a world that was safe. It would be a world, specifically, where no one ever loved anything as much as the Nazis had loved Germany– and thus a world without eros or thumos, a tame world.

This is what the current right-liberal critics of postliberalism are worried about: the releasing of that energy back into public. But it can’t be kept out. That’s inhuman, and it simply doesn’t work. Men will love. The problem is what they love.

The problem with the Nazis was not that they loved, but that they were idolaters. The weapon against bad-illiberalism is not liberalism, but good-illiberalism. “Love God,” Christ says, “and your neighbor as yourself.” And that’s what postliberalism seeks to do, politically. “Do not love– at least not politically. That’s private. Hedge your bets. Be safe,” says liberalism– particularly right-liberalism; left-liberalism has some of the love of the public good that is in genuine leftism.

“Susannah,” I hear you ask– “is there by any chance a Sondheim song that perfectly captures how liberalism– both Kantian and Kojevian– proposes to solve the problem of intemperate political loves?” Funny you should mention this: I think there is.

Marry me a little
Love me just enough.
Cry, but not too often,
Play, but not too rough.
Keep a tender distance
so we’ll both be free.
That’s the way it ought to be.

Marry me a little,
Do it with a will.
Make a few demands
I’m able to fulfill.
Want me more than others,
Not exclusively.
That’s the way it ought to be.
You can be my best friend,
I can be your right arm.
We’ll go through a fight or two–
No harm, no harm.
We’ll look not too deep,
We’ll go not too far.
We won’t have to give up a thing,
We’ll stay who we are.
Marry me a little,
Love me just enough.
Warm and sweet and easy,
Just the simple stuff.
Keep a tender distance
So we’ll both be free.
That’s the way it ought to be.
Marry me a little,
Body, heart, and soul.
Passionate as hell
But always in control.
Want me first and foremost,
Keep me company.
That’s the way it ought to be.
Oh, how gently we’ll talk,
Oh, how softly we’ll tread.
All the stings,
The ugly things
We’ll keep unsaid.
We’ll build a cocoon
Of love and respect.
You promise whatever you like,
I’ll never collect…

Susannah Black Roberts

Susannah Black Roberts is senior editor at Plough. She is a native Manhattanite. She and her husband, the theologian Alastair Roberts, split their time between Manhattan and the West Midlands of the UK.