Reactionary Thinkers in an Unsettled Era

Matthew Rose | A World After Liberalism: Five Thinkers Who Inspired the Radical Right | Yale University Press | 2021

reviewed by Michelle A. Harrington

It is precisely at this moment in which a full-throated defense of democracy and liberal order must be marshaled—both ideologically and now, in the case of Ukraine, militarily—that Matthew Rose implores us to interrogate “the needs that liberalism cannot satisfy and struggles to acknowledge.” Precipitous democratic degradation in the U.S. along with Russian imperialism abroad appear to corroborate the idea that what may come “after liberalism” is no simple reiteration of neo-conservatism. Rose offers five “essay-portraits” of far-right philosophers who have rejected the post-World War II consensus of individual liberty, limited government, and free trade, along with human equality, minority rights, religious toleration, and cultural pluralism. Oswald Spengler, Julius Evola, Francis Parker Yockey, Alain de Benoist, and Samuel Francis vary in their appetites for violence and the destruction of existing orders and represent disparate views on race, religion, economics, and political strategy, but none of them believe that open societies are history’s final word.

When read together, the essays in A World After Liberalism illustrate the profound ironies of illiberal thought in ways that are productively dis- and re-orienting. Political philosophies and power politicking can be seen to diverge in ways that betray the stated intentions of their advocates. Thinkers who oppose the leveling culture of liberal equality and champion the “great men” school of history give rise to movements that elevate vulgarity and help to install charismatic leaders who exemplify no aristocratic bearing or nobility of soul. While politics is, at least in part, a struggle for recognition, attempts to compel this recognition and to enforce judgments that buttress claims to superiority provoke urgent thinking about the libido dominandi (lust to dominate) along with fresh appreciation for the fragile achievements of post-Enlightenment politics. Nevertheless, these five thinkers are convinced that they can dismantle the house of liberal order with its own tools by, variously, fomenting white racial consciousness and extending identity politics to those of European descent, claiming postmodern tropes of mutual incomprehensibility among “Others,” sacralizing cultural and civilizational “biodiversity,” and promising comfort of place and elevation of purpose within a re-sacralized chain-of-being.

Ascendant Christian nationalism in the U.S. camouflages the irony that many of these far-right philosophies that are functionally allied with it consider Christianity a nefarious solvent of tradition. These thinkers charge that Christianity’s revolutionary ideas of human dignity and equality, division between religious and political authority, leveling of distinctions between race, class, and sex, approval of adoptive (and therefore chosen) families and lineages, along with faith in a transcendent and universal kingdom have leavened liberal societies in ways that take humans “out of the world,” leaving them rootless and unmoored. They consider Christianity’s spread poisonous and regard it as responsible for the life-sapping anomie and supposed mediocrity of the modern world. Rose maintains that these charges deserve careful consideration and observes that the liberal consensus has constrained the bounds of our imaginations and conversations; it is important to inquire about limits to human nature, along with the grace that might perfect it. Rose prods us to grapple with the inchoate longings, prerational instincts, and dogged prejudices that we thought had been put to bed, and to consider the scale and scope of human lives, the need to belong to something greater than ourselves, and the obligations we inherit by virtue of the givenness of our births.

While these philosophers are being read on the far-right fringes, Rose acknowledges that few rally-goers will be waving their books around; their ideas and commitments are nevertheless pervasive. When read together, the essays render contemporary controversies more legible. School board battles over Critical Race Theory and now even “social-emotional learning” can be seen as contests to control history and to secure the recognition of group identity. Millions of Americans reject cosmopolitan values and crave, perhaps unconsciously, unchallengeable myths to unite their racial, ethnic, religious, or national group; they regard critical historical correctives as attacks on the superiority they are striving to secure. Those who wish to inculcate a spirited defense of group interest in their children may not regard the cultivation of reflective equilibrium, equal regard, and reasoned choice as moral goods. Against charges that biblical theologies are intellectually repressive, antisemitic thinkers like Yockey hold Judaism (and by extension, Christianity) responsible for habits of critical rationality that sow suspicion about status quo inequalities and foster an enervating lack of deference toward hierarchical orders and cultural heroes. Contemporary charges of “cultural Marxism” and “wokism,” while barely-concealed slurs, represent protest against the use of critical rationality to ground shared frailties rather than to command an unquestionable reality. One need only witness the pushback against Christian historians like Kristin Kobes du Mez and Jemar Tisby to observe that this phenomenon is active among conservative Christian institutions that have been asked to confront and repent of historical sins.

Rose closes the book with a chapter “in a Christian voice.” There, he employs Denise Kimber Buell’s work on ethnic reasoning in early Christianity to introduce the idea that early Christians conceived of Christianity as a race, or ethnos—one that united them in an august lineage and granted them an ennobling inheritance, all while healing their history. Rose acknowledges that this idea is fraught, but I have found it provocative and productive, and have myself discussed this idea with the anti-racism committee at my Episcopal church, in which “becoming beloved community” is the stated goal. I note that womanist and liberationist theologians are leading the charge by grappling with ideas about the “kin-dom of God” and possibilities for affirming the primacy of a constitutive Christian identity and transhistorical community of saints and sages.

Rose’s five philosophers, while frequently repugnant, were grappling with human finitude and contingency and proposing ways to secure a firm identity in a world of seemingly infinite possibilities. These instinctual needs have not disappeared, but countervailing political futures must be envisioned and enacted. It remains to be seen whether multicultural democracies can be sustained or whether communities that affirm human equality and purport to transcend differences of race, sex, and status must again live as minority reports that witness to a wider, post-liberal world.

Michelle A. Harrington

Michelle A. Harrington holds a Ph.D. in religious ethics from the University of Chicago.