Michael Hanby on Postliberalism

Last week’s Touchstone magazine autumn conference was full of pleasures, including the opportunity to spend time with Michael Hanby (philosopher at the John Paul II Institute in Washington). Hanby published an excellent piece recently about the postliberal moment. It is something I would like to discuss today. Excerpts:

Our political system’s most serious problems are not political, but metaphysical and theological. The foundations of political order and political philosophy are natural philosophy, metaphysics, and theology. They are the first in reality, and encompass every conception of the human person, the political order, and the common good. To borrow a phrase from Maurice Blondel: “Political life” is “metaphysics as it happens”. Every metaphysics, even one that is in action, implies a tacit conception or belief in God. This is regardless of whether God is believed to exist.

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This is crucial. This is important. Hanby claims that the liberal order is based on Charles Peguy’s’mystical disaster’, also known as a “metaphysical disaster” that expelled God from politics and reduced politics to power relations.

Thus, the advent of the secular coincides with a complete transformation of the world’s relationship to God and with the reinvention God, nature and Christianity as instruments of scientific and political purpose. This transformation affects all aspects of reality.

Hanby speaks out about something I find frustrating in so much of the politics discourse. Many people don’t realize the metaphysical baggage that they bring to these discussions. This is understandable in one way. Although we assume that everyone agrees with our final premises, it is not true. This might have been true fifty years ago in a broad (but still relevant) sense, but it isn’t now. The reason the liberal order is so fragile is that our views on the Ultimate have become drastically incompatible, in ways they were not fifty years ago or sixty years ago. Hanby says that we live in a world where God and being are no longer as intelligible, but instead have become meaningless questions.

Hanby claims that “postliberalism”, a new type of liberalism, has finally emerged as a meaningful phenomenon. This is in large part due to Patrick Deneen’s book Why Liberalism Fail. (Answer : Because it succeeded brilliantly at creating the radically independent individual but destroyed the pre-political foundations.

Hanby believes that postliberalism will lead to the end of liberalism. Hanby supports this prediction. He wrote:

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Postliberalism’s prefix indicates that we have moved beyond traditional political philosophy. This is a theoretical inquiry into ideal polities. Postliberalism is a way of thinking that has been conditioned by a liberal order, which it hopes will be replaced. Whether liberal order is indeed passing, or whether it represents something of a Zeno’s paradox of fragmentation–always falling, never collapsing–, whether this interminable disintegration marks the transition to a new kind of politics or passage into a post-political age governed by technological exigencies that are ultimately ungovernable by us, whether, in other words, there is anything after liberal order, once it has negated every alternative and established its inherent meaninglessness as the ultimate horizon, is an important question that we have only begun to contemplate. This question is simply about the concern that liberalism’s opponents obscure the nature, size and scope of liberal order, which they see as a cataclysm for the human spirit. Their search for political relevance could lead to a potent critique being domesticated and blocking our vision of a genuine alternative to liberalism and how it might be lived in the face of liberalism’s inexorable demise.

He is essentially saying that certain postliberals’ triumphalism makes it difficult to see the alternatives to the decrepit liberal order. This is an incredibly powerful claim. Let’s find out what he is referring to.

Hanby first explains that postliberalism is not defined by its partisans’ criticism but by its success on social media.

This confusion is exacerbated by the fact social media has mediated the world of politics in an extensive way. It is where brands are created and jobs as “public intellectuals” are made and destroyed. The “successful” of arguments, which we now refer to as profundity and truth, is measured by their “impact”, which is determined by one’s followers and one’s ability to manipulate the market. The virtual world has made what should have been a thoughtful philosophical and theological investigation into the nature of things a political contest.

Hanby, if I understand him correctly, is saying that postliberalism becomes trivialized when conversations about the feasibility of Catholic integralism returning devolve into tweet fights, libs owning and friend-enemy distinction making. More:

Social media give their users some of the same editorial power as traditional media when they mediate reality. This includes the ability to exclude from considering ideas and questions that could undermine the edifice. Media’s mediation of reality, the media’s power to decide what thinks, and the power that doesn’t think are all one and the exact same.

The structural features of a platform like Twitter–its brevity, the “presentism” of its mediated immediacy, and, of course, its omnipresence–enhance this power exponentially. This is combined with the stimuli-response nature of these disincarnate interactions and their performative role as instruments for self-expression, self-promotion and self-promotion create a powerful inducing factor to thinklessness: an irresistible temptation to trade knowing for knowingness and absolve oneself, one’s followers, of the burdens of thinking.

Social media discourse is structurally sophistic. It tells the truth but uses words for other ends. Ends for which understanding, falsehood, and half-truths may all be equally useful. Social media has made even the truth an ideology and an instrument for power in a virtual world. This is what happens when politics becomes the ultimate horizon. Totalitarianism and social media are therefore compatible. Marshall McLuhan once famously stated that the medium is the message.

Twitter is not the Real World, it is a fact. This is a mistake people make (like me!) People who spend a lot time in this world make a mistake. It seems like a thing to look at integralist discourse on social networks. But, let’s be real, it is an intellectual treasure trove. It is a coherent solution to the problems that postliberalism attempts address. It is unlikely to be successful in real life because it relies on conditions that no more exist, such as a Catholic Church with immense authority. This is false, for better or worse. It would not be possible to find one American Catholic among a thousand that would agree to an integralist order, let alone non-Catholics who make up the majority of Americans. This would be impossible to know if you were not following Twitter. I think this is what Hanby means.

It can be seen in another light. Many people convert to Orthodoxy and Latin Mass Catholicism in the online world that I live in (social media + internet). It’s humbling for me to see the real world and realize how many megachurches of Protestants outnumber the growing number of Orthodox or Trad Catholics. It is certain that in every society, the direction of the society will be determined by the discourse between elites. Megachurch Protestantism is large, but it has far less cultural influence and intellectual impact than its peers. James Davison Hunter, a sociologist, explains how it works.

Hanby criticizes the “common good conservatism,” promoted by integralist Adrian Vermeule, and his followers. Hanby begins by addressing the “manualist” habits of some postliberal Catholic thinkers. These people think and write as though the formulas for good government have been already written down and need only be applied with vigor. When I read Hanby, my traditionalist Catholic friend went to his priest with a difficult theological question. His priest replied with “Look it up in [titles to books] and you’ll get the answer.” My friend knew what the Church taught doctrinally but struggled to grasp its deeper meaning. Yes, there is a conservative who can respond to the mystery of the world and the challenges of living in this messy world with that kind of legalism.

Hanby writes:

However, to view the common good only as a manualistic solution for the crisis of liberal order would be to miss the full extent of liberal nihilism. A genuine political order requires political community. The common good assumes that we all share a common nature as well as a common reality. The mutual deliberation over the means to achieve the goods necessary to this shared reality also presupposes that all of us participate in the same order of reason. All these common things are gravely endangered by a liberal technological and technological order that is based on their practical and theoretical negation. In the name of freedom, or more accurately, the reconception that freedom and truth are forms of power has created a state for permanent revolution against all forms of antecedent order, natural, moral, and political. The technical and political dimensions of this revolution have mutually reinforced and capacitated each other. The language we use to recognize the world, the connatural knowledge we get from our mothers, that predates all ideologies, is being attacked. The “American experiment” rapidly becomes an experiment to see if a society can be duct-taped together with physical infrastructure, bureaucratic, and financial administration, as well as a shared antipathy towards reality. Is there anything that can be recognized or found as common?

Hanby is a philosopher, and I am not. So I may be misunderstanding him. Hanby seems to believe that “common good conservatism only works in a society that has a pre-political, shared conception of the common benefit.” We live in a “liberal and technological order,” which denies our shared nature and common reality. Simply put, it is impossible for an orthodox Christian to agree with a gender ideologue on the meanings of reality and human nature. Gender ideologues’ teachings, practices, and preaching are a deep evil. They would also say that my religion is a terrible form of religion. Liberalism’s longevity is due to the fact that no one has yet found a way for us all to live peacefully without liberalism. However, time is running out. You should not be surprised to see liberals complaining in the media that “democracy is under threat from the Right.” This is because people on the right are very familiar with this game, whereby the policy preferences and policies of the Left are interpreted as “democracy,” even though they don’t have widespread support. This is something that people outside of the Left bubble are quite familiar with. Viktor Orban’s party won an overwhelming victory in Hungary this spring. This is despite the fact that the party had hoped for a better result. The Western media created a false narrative to explain why the democratic result was not truly democratic. The Right knows how this works.

This passage speaks directly to the heart and challenges that await all postliberal types. Hanby is a philosopher and scientist, so he can bring that knowledge to bear on this perceptive observation.

The New Right responds to the crisis in liberalism often by saying that law is a teacher. This is a traditional argument that I support and fought for long before postliberalism became a political preoccupation. It is obvious that good laws are better than bad laws, and I would be open to many of the New Right’s laws if they were to gain power. However, their inability to respond adequately to our crisis calls into question whether or not they truly understand the situation.

Technology is not dependent on politics. Law is often impotent and reactive in the face interminable technological change and its exigencies. Technological revolution, as a system of necessity, governs us deeper than the rule law ever could. It determines the conditions of thought and action, and generates an endless stream of downstream possibilities that are hard to imagine before they become a reality.

Twenty years ago, it was impossible to imagine that anyone would need a smartphone. The digital revolution has irreversibly changed the nature of human sociality. It brought the sexual revolution to a decisive victory with astonishing speed. Does anyone think that the SOGI juggernaut could not have advanced so quickly without the internet ?–,? It enabled us to take new forms of political action, without any political responsibility, and create new mechanisms of enforcement that operate completely outside of traditional political decision-making and deliberation channels. Instantaneously, riots can be erupted around the world in response to any provocative act. At the first sign of wrongthink, anyone can call down the furies without notice on anyone anywhere. This is not because of the state or anyone in particular but as a result of a large stimulus-response system and a system mutual surveillance of all against everything that has taken over a life of it’s own. This mechanism is capable of “keeping us in awe” by causing what Shoshana Zurboff calls “anticipatory conformity”. Biometrics, which combines biotechnology and information technology, will likely make it more complete. It will track, predict, and control every aspect of our lives.

Google is more inside us than we are to Almighty Google. He has all our hearts open and all our desires are known. It seems incredibly antiquated to have a few hundred people gathered under a dome for a year to discuss policy. This technocratic power is maturing and does not signal another type of political order that is transparent to classical political theory. It signals the end of politics and the dawn of a new post-political age. There is also the need for profound renewals of Catholic thinking. When there is no culture, all the talk about culture being downstream of law is meaningless. These slogans are not meant to be a serious analysis or a deep grasp of the current situation.

This space has previously mentioned how a Polish high school teacher told me that social media is responsible for the decline in Catholic faith among young people in Poland. He said that no institution in Poland, including the Church, the State or the family, is more powerful than Tiktok at shaping the moral imaginations and beliefs of young people. Hanby seems to be referring to this. We are heading into a world in which politics as it was conceived by all thinkers is no longer a model of how people think and act. Hanby says Bromides on how culture is downstream from law are useless when there isn’t a culture. This is strong medicine, difficult to swallow but an important truth. Hanby, a conservative Catholic, believes that the metaphysical catastrophe is so severe that any attempt to impose a Catholic political system would not only fail but also accelerate the demise of the current system. The integralists’ cure would not only fail in treating the patient but also accelerate his death. Hanby writes:

In any case, it is the absolutization and conflation authority and power that characterize modern politics–and not the influence of Carl Schmitt in the first instance–that leads to the suspicion that Integralism is simply a Catholic version of the Hobbesian science and practice of power.

This is how I see it. It is telling that integralist commentators aren’t particularly interested in discipleship and evangelism, but in theories and mechanisms for political power.

Hanby picked the integralists, I believe, because he is also a Catholic of Right and because integralism represents a well-articulated postliberal solution to the crisis in liberalism. However, it seems to me that the flaws of integralism are also the flaws of any postliberal solution to the crisis. This is why I have never been able get past the Benedict Option as an answer. It is crucial for Christians to now strengthen their faith and faith communities to prevent the fall of the Empire. It doesn’t matter how many political orders we follow, if our faith is lost, what does it matter?

If you are interested in the consequences of a political or social order that favors a Church that gives up trying to disciple and convert its people, then look at post-Christian Ireland. Also, look at the Catholic institution’s response in the aftermath of the abuse scandal. In which the bishops believed that suppressing and denial was the only way to keep power. This was possible before the internet. The Scandal took place in 2002. It was possible to see what was going on in Boston simultaneously. The media and Church authorities no longer have to be relied on to get information about the behavior of bishops and priests. Hanby is referring to technology and politics. Any authority, clerical or not, has suffered a huge blow from the internet. Today, through the invaluable online Catholic journal The Pillar we learned that despite Pope Francis’s lengthy face-pulling about cleaning-up the scandal-ridden Church ( see the “Look Closer”) section. It doesn’t matter how many times you tell someone that they are Catholics. They have to believe and do X,Y and Z. The Magisterium will not hear. This was true before the Scandal. It is difficult to find the coherent, binding, and magisterial Catholicism that many conservatives love in the real world, as anyone who has been familiar with the Catholic Church of America will tell you. While no church can be a perfect representation of its ideals in every instance, it is true that there are many who would argue against integralism as the solution to the postliberal problem. This requires massive denial of the actual state of Catholicism in America. It is a country where most Catholics are functionally Protestant.

Did you know that only one third of American Catholics agree with the Church’s fundamental teaching that the Eucharist literally is the Body and Blood Christ? The majority of American Catholics don’t know the basics about their faith. According to a Pew survey from 2016, only 8 percent of American Catholics follow the Church’s prohibition against artificial contraception. It would seem that the minimum test for integralism’s natural supporters in America Catholics would be asking how many Americans obey Humanae vi, that is, if they surrender their most intimate decisions in one’s private and family lives to the authority of Catholic Church. Although it doesn’t automatically make everyone who follows HV integralists, it is certain that many who support integralism do so. With 60 million Americans Catholics, this means that we have approximately four million people who might be open to integralism. It would be a shock if it was 400,000 for me personally, but that’s not the point. Integralism is interesting to a small group of right-of-center Catholic intellectuals who are internet-savvy. This is fine. I enjoy these discussions. But let’s not confuse them. Let’s just keep in mind the world as it is and what it might become as we work our way out of the ashes of liberalism.

Hanby:

The integralists’ obsession with legalizing political coercion for spiritual ends does not diminish the concern that modern integralism is a party to the modern conflation authority and power and, thus, to the metaphysical catastrophe presupposed by modern political order. It is true that law serves both a coercive and pedagogical function. Any political order, liberal or otherwise, must coerce its citizens to achieve the ends it considers good and true. The Church has not been able to relieve the political order from its duty to serve truth and promote true religion. Dignitatis Humanae however, reveals the implicit truth of freedom as an integral part of a truth that can be finally converted with Trinitarian love.

To explain the teachings or remind us of the virtues that coercion can bring about, one does not need to invoke St. Thomas’ authority. It is a fact that every father knows. It would be perverse and strange to think that I could define fatherhood as my ability to coerce my children. And it would also be abusive if this power was not informed from the top by my love and a genuine understanding of their flourishing. It may be necessary to force them to do the right thing, but there is still an infinite difference between their being forced to do the right thing by me and their inner assent to truth and goodness.

It is not that coercion can be used to force people to do something. It is not enough to acknowledge the relationship between authority and power, or to consider it primarily a matter of function or office.

It’s the Grand Inquisitor Option.

Hanby again focuses on integralism, its flaws, but the problem with authority affects us all. Is it possible to believe that consent is a condition of being governed? Okay, but who consents that public schools teach little children transgenderism in the name of equity and inclusion? Who will accept anti-white, anti Asian liberal racism in the form “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion?” It is possible to say that democracy comes with elections’ results, which would be true in the past. Today? Today, both Republican and Democratic figures are “election deniers” in part because it is how one expresses doubt in the system. While I believe Joe Biden won 2020, I also believe some of his policies are beyond the State’s rights. I recognize his power but not his authority. I also know that many Left-leaning people felt the same about Donald Trump. This isn’t a small thing. Recently, while I was driving through rural Michigan, I noticed signs that screamed, “FUCK BIDEN!” This is an alarming sign of internal decay. This is a statement I make as someone who did not vote for Joe Biden, and would never vote to support Joe Biden. But I am old enough to recall when it was normal for you not to say such things about the American president, even if you were a conservative. America has seen a shift. There is power but very little authority.

Hanby believes that the revival of integralism should be welcomed because it forces us to face questions about the political order we have been ignoring for a while. It is not meant to be considered a proposal for practical politics. Hanby says that Catholics are hindered from thinking hard enough to face the fall of Christian civilization by being preoccupied with integralism. He wrote:

If, as appears likely, our de-Christianized society has already fallen apart and is waiting for the right moment to reveal the truth, that it can’t be “restored” and must be rebuilt from its ashes by our children’s kids, then “solving this disaster” will require us to accept the inevitable consequences of our fateful renunciation of freedom and faith and to trust the living God with a patience that only God can afford. It will require keeping alive its memories and coming to terms the true depths of its absence. In a world that is unable to understand or in a Church that believes in the shaming of the times, there is no way for such a solution. It is impossible to see the way, except we can “comprehend” our thoughts in the light of a truth, a Logos that transcends all time. There will be no “restoration,” “rebuilding”–indeed, no salvation–without a renewal of the Catholic mind.


The whole thing.

Today’s challenge for Catholics and all Christians is much more difficult than getting politics under control. The Benedict Option is not a way to avoid politics but as the only way for Christians to remember what it means to be Christian. It is the ark that will keep the faith burning in this long, dark night. It’s only a partial solution, but is there anything else? Paul Kingsnorth called “the Machine” and Michael Hanby, a philosopher of science, knows that we are all being enslaved to it. This reality has been ignored by Christian political thought.

I would prefer to have my children be martyrs like Blessed Franz Jagerstatter, who were Christians on the losing side in a political battle but who testified to Christ’s truth with their blood, than to be men or women who have been elected to power at the cost of their souls. It is clear to me that we are creating a totalitarian regime whose totalitarianism is exactly (per Del Noce, as cited by Hanby), in its total intolerance for any concept of Being that might threaten its own. We will have to decide sooner or later whether we want to serve this system. It can be Left-wing, Right-wing, or a combination of both. I see a synthesis between left-wing cultural and economic values and right-wing economics. Integralism leaves one unprepared to face the kind of moral and political decisions that ordinary Christians will have to make in the current world. You will be better equipped to face the God who is Truth if you have lived the orderly, organized, countercultural life that the Benedict Option requires.

Although I may be wrong and welcome criticism on this point, it seems that liberalism’s victory is so profound that it’s difficult to see beyond it. What comes next after any totalitarian, or perhaps merely autoritarian interlude will have to be built upon a shared metaphysics if it isn’t going to be an imposition by the elites. Is that possible in a resurrected Christianity? That is why I recommend the Benedict Option. It might not be. It is not required to be.

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