We are in an “interregnum”, says Adrian Pabst, quoting the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci: “the old is dying and the new cannot be born”. The result is the “morbid phenomena” of identity politics, whether nationalism on the right or the excesses of critical theory on the left. According to Pabst, an economist at the National Institute of Economic and Social Research and a contributing writer to this magazine, we are waiting for a new social theory to form a new social order – “postliberalism”.
The fading old order is what Pabst calls the “failed fusion” of technocracy and progressivism. The legacy of Max Weber and Beatrice and Sidney Webb – bureaucracy for progress – has morphed in our time into a horrible alliance of big government, big business and big media. Together these forces sever people from each other, from their history and culture, and from the places that shape them.
We briefly hoped – last year I wrote a whole report for government on the basis of the hope – that the pandemic would usher in an age of local cooperation, mutualism and responsible business. Instead, as Pabst says, the “new normal” represents an intensification of the old normal: centralisation, hyper-capitalism and culture war, all sustained by new technologies. He paints a terrifying picture of where we are heading. The harbinger is China but the dystopia has solid British roots, too, in the mad ideas of Jeremy Bentham, whose vision of a “panopticon” – a prison where inmates are under permanent surveillance – is being realised in the age of tech (and, most fearsomely, biotech).
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It’s not all bad. By shifting public spending and political attention to the deindustrialised areas and opposing the extremes of the “woke” tendency, Boris Johnson is building a sort of Elizabethan compromise to unite our country. Keir Starmer, too – perhaps under the influence of Claire Ainsley, his policy chief – is seeking a new left politics of family and community. Both are committed to repairing our relations with the planet.
Of the two, Johnson has the best chance of getting all this right, but then I would think that. Pabst comes from the other side. His denunciations of capitalism, free trade and, in notably softer terms, Brexit, sit awkwardly for conservatives, and I fear my party could write off his book as another ex-socialist’s muddled effort to find a third way between the left’s failed philosophy and the victorious doctrines of the right. This would be a shame, however, because Pabst is honest about the real source of his ideas.
The father of postliberalism is Edmund Burke, the 18th-century conservative politician whose stress on the limits of individual reason, and on local attachment – the “link in the chain” to public affection and peace – inspires a whole policy agenda that should appeal across the political spectrum. Pabst recommends Frank Field’s ideas of new mutual funds to replace our centralised, tax-funded health and welfare services with systems of reciprocity and contribution. He wants a beefed-up national volunteer corps, building on David Cameron’s National Citizen Service, to tackle our great environmental and social challenges. He dreams of a new economy of carers and artisans, including “more small butchers and charcutiers, more vintners and micro-brewers” who can challenge the cartel of supermarkets. He wants a more distributed arrangement of power, with local people taking more responsibility for the decisions that shape their places.
It is a shame that so much of the energy of postliberalism is coming from the left, though there are those – Phillip Blond, most notably, and a gang of writers at Unherd – who articulate a better conservatism than the distorted echoes of Thatcherism. Many of these thinkers root their politics in the common inheritance of English Christianity, which the nobler – the Methodist, not the Marxist – part of Labour is also heir to.
Conservatism without Christianity is just snobbery and spivvery – or even worse, a sort of futurist liberalism that imagines the only goal of politics is the liberation of the individual from all limits. A real Conservative knows that limits define the individual and make him or her safe, happy and free. Labour used to know this, too, and Pabst offers his party a way back – beyond the rival liberalisms of Jeremy Corbyn and Tony Blair – to its conservative beginnings.
This is a quite brilliant book, written with a lightness and a passion that conveys the appeal and the importance of this agenda. The “public philosophy of postliberalism” Pabst sketches, and the policies that might flow from it, are not abstract but are based on a proper appreciation of the things that matter to people: their families, their homes, their community and their country.
Do not think this stuff is fluffy. We are beset by existential crises, but the solution is to behave well to one another, to fix our private relationships, and to arrange our social and economic systems to cultivate the conditions of virtue. “It may sound ridiculous,” Albert Camus wrote in La Peste, the novel of our time, “but the only way to fight the plague is with decency.”
Danny Kruger is the Conservative MP for Devizes, Wiltshire
Postliberal Politics: The Coming Era of Renewal
Polity Press, 160pp, £14.99
This article appears in the 25 Aug 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Retreat