The term “post-liberal” has acquired a lot of currency over the past few years, amidst the collapse of the conventional left-right spectrum. We all know the story by now: this apparent left-right divide was always an illusion, conjured to obscure the fact that there was no serious divide at all, but only a broad consensus on a “neoliberal”/social democratic administrative anti-politics. The idea that no serious politics was necessary anymore, that history had ended and there was only space now for some perennial bureaucratised technical management, was opposed only by “fringe” figures like libertarians, fascists and socialists, who were easy to dismiss. That is, until the financial crisis of 2008 opened the Pandora’s box and set history in motion again.
Explosions of novel and neo-archaic thinking on all sides of the political spectrum gave birth to a still-congealing post-liberal current, as well as the earlier alt-right and neoreactionary movements. Most of these new movements have sprung up on the right, perhaps a result of the right’s greater ease in perceiving and thinking its own exteriority. The only current of similar status on the left is the highly marginal accelerationist one. As post-liberalism continues to develop into a coherent political force and stake out new ideological territory, a space is unveiled directly opposite it that so far remains unoccupied. This space yearns for a new exit-oriented philosophy that one might call “meta-liberalism”.
Post-liberalism & Post-libertarianism
Post-liberals and their fellow travellers claim that what sustained the brief damming of history’s flow was a “liberal consensus”, a consensus that emerged following the Thatcher, Reagan and Blair eras, holding that no serious critique of the social-market model of the economy, or the progressive-liberal model of society, could be made from either the left or the right. All political parties from now on could only adopt some position around a well-anchored liberal centre. This is analogous to some extent to what Mark Fisher called “capitalism realism”. Now however, against this liberal centre, and also against a resurgent far-right and radical left, a post-liberal current of Red Toryism, Blue Labourism and national conservatism has sprouted forth.
MT Steiner, writing in Quilette, characterises post-liberalism as critical of several basic liberal principles: individualism, universalism, “meliorism” (the belief in perpetual progress à la Steven Pinker) and egalitarianism. He draws a taxonomy of post-liberalism in which there are three main currents: a right, epitomised by national conservatives like Yoram Hazony, a centre epitomised by the current British Conservative Party, and a left epitomised by Andrew Yang. Giles Fraser locates the intellectual roots of post-liberalism in the Aristotelian communitarianism of Alisdair Macintyre, the anti-humanism of John Gray, Simone Weil’s Christian socialism and the Red Toryism of Philip Blond.
This supplanting of the liberal consensus by post-liberalism, in what amounts really to the rise of a reconfigured conservatism, was mirrored by the development of neoreaction (aka NRx) from the American libertarian movement. Back in 2007—long before the liberal edifice of mainstream politics started to crumble around 2013—blogger Curtis Yarvin launched an online post-libertarian movement that questioned the liberal principles at the heart of libertarianism. Drawing from the more culturally-conservative strand of libertarianism exhibited by Murray Rothbard and Hans-Hermann Hoppe, Yarvin put forward a “neocameralist” system of government in which the United States becomes a joint-stock corporation, headed by a CEO instead of a president.
The NRx movement grew rapidly, germinating in the soil of the rationalist forum Less Wrong, before translocating to a number of other blog-based outlets. Prominent NRx figures besides Yarvin included Nick Land, Michael Anissimov, Bryce Laliberte, Spandrell, nydwracu, Steve Sailer, and Nick B Steves. NRx was seen to tri-verge into three overlapping factions: techno-commercialialism (a post-libertarian faction exemplified by Land and Yarvin, focused on neocameralism), ethnonationalism and traditionalism. As time went on, the techno-commercialist faction waned, and NRx on the whole almost entirely dispossessed itself of its classical-liberal roots, degenerating instead into various kinds of bog-standard reactionary ideology.
Mainstream outlets like The Atlantic started picking up on NRx during the wake of Donald Trump’s 2016 victory, as rumours circulated that Steve Bannon had connections with the movement. At the same time however, NRx was on the brink of death. Between 2017 and 2019, the movement essentially disappeared: major NRx publications like Social Matter and Thermidor ceased publication, and most prominent NRx bloggers no longer maintained a serious online presence. Nick Land pivoted to an intense involvement in a resurgent accelerationist movement, and this has too drifted rapidly away from any tenuous connections it had to NRx. The last prominent NRx publication, Jacobite, founded on the back of Land’s writings, now publishes new material very infrequently.
Post-NRx & Post-liberalism
Why did NRx die? To a certain extent because of Land’s move into accelerationism, and to a certain extent because some of its political energy fed into the alt-right and Trumpism, but mostly because its more intellectual side became part of nascent post-liberalism. The appearance of NRx figure Peter Thiel at the National Conservatism conference alongside moderate nationalists Yoram Hazony and Douglas Murray, as well as Curtis Yarvin’s reappearance under his own name in Trumpist magazine The American Mind, show how the less extreme variants of NRx have now been able to coalesce with right post-liberalism.
One might call the scattering of intellectual rightist figures, organisations and publications that emerged in the wake of NRx’s death “post-NRx” (unforgivably ugly as it is to give a word two prefaces at the same time). Besides Thiel and The American Mind, other things that might fall under the banner of post-NRx include the magazine Palladium, whose founding mission is to reach a “post-liberal synthesis”; Palladium, while not explicitly right-leaning, exhibits a broadly conservative overtone, and (like members of NRx) praises East-Asian governance models while promoting novel governance architectures like private cities and putting forward a kind of conservative futurism.
The charter cities movement, promoted by Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Romer and championed by Mark Lutter’s Charter Cities Institute, is in many ways a more practical and socially acceptable version of Yarvin’s neocameralist and Patchwork proposals. Mark Lutter has appeared on Palladium’s weekly podcast, as has Samo Burja who has emerged in the same circles as a prominent and astute analyst of institutions and political systems. Other major players in this space include GMU economists Robin Hanson and Garrett Jones, blogger Peter Limberg, seasteading advocate Patri Friedman, psychologist Geoffrey Miller, North Star podcast host David Perell and Venture Stories podcast host Erik Torenberg.
The influence of these figures on the broader post-liberal movement remains up for question, but is likely to be a lot more pronounced than that of NRx could have ever been. As the liberal edifice continues to crumble, and Macron-esque attempts to hold back the floodgates prove inadequate, the most likely outcome is that the centre-right and centre-left parties internalise the insights of post-liberalism, forging some kind of “neo-neo-liberalism” that allows them to placate voters for the foreseeable future. However, there is still a chance the genuinely post-liberal movements (like Trumpism) continue to gain a commanding position in Western nations. Regardless of outcome, a centripetal force will always drag ideas in from the edges, and so post-NRx can continue to have a significant influence.
The Space for a Meta-liberalism
If post-liberalism manages to congeal into a coherent new consensus, what force could logically arise to oppose it? What is the opposite of post-liberalism? Since post-liberalism is often really more of an illiberalism or anti-liberalism, one might ask what is the true post-liberalism i.e. the movement which keeps the spirit of liberalism as its driving force while moving beyond the constraints of the liberal paradigm? One might (at the cost of generating even more awkward neologisms) call this position meta-liberalism, in line with how metamodernism has been posited as a position that transcends postmodernism.
Mary Harrington in her recent piece for Palladium, as well as in their podcast, presents an interesting case for how a forward-looking post-liberalism might be constructed. At the political level, post-liberalism is a response to the failure of centre left and right parties to deal with the financial crisis and its fallout; intellectually however (as we saw above) post-liberalism embodies an undermining of liberal humanist premises that has largely taken space in critical theory. Unlike most on the contemporary right and centre, Harrington doesn’t just scoff at “postmodernism”, but rather makes the case for how a kind of conservative philosophy can be constructed in light of poststructuralist insights.
This is very encouraging; any kind of post-liberal philosophy that survives at an intellectual level must reckon with the force of poststructuralist and posthumanist insights. But Harrington’s analysis leaves one question open: if there is a “conservative” response to the crisis of meaning posited by poststructuralism, shouldn’t there also be a “liberal” one? In the Palladium podcast, Harrington briefly alludes to a perspective that emerged in 20th century feminist theory of embracing the anarchy and multiplicity of meanings poststructuralism has laid bare, rather than attempting to reconstruct traditional institutions. Is this what an “anti-post-liberalism” would look like?
This feminist position Harrington describes is also reminiscent of some of the ideas coming out of the accelerationist space. In this vein, and especially considering Harrington’s influences from psychoanalysis, we could posit the post-liberal/anti-post-liberal divide as analogous to the Freud/Deleuze divide drawn out initially by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, and then later by Nick Land. That is, the fact that all conservative philosophies (post-liberalism included) strive above all to put a lid on desire (of which they are highly suspicious), and hence oppose themselves to Deleuzian perspectives which have a much more positive perspective on desire. To put it technically, conservative currents strive to territorialise whereas anti-conservative ones strive to deterritorialise.
The reason that all post-liberals—left, right and centre—agree on their philosophical opposition to neoliberal capitalism, is that capitalism is a system which instantiates libidinal liberation: the freedom of desire to be materially wrought. Capitalism is the engine of deterritorialisation par excellence. As Giles Fraser puts it in his piece:
“On economics, liberalism seeks to dismantle the barriers to free trade. With free-market capitalism, the human subject has broken free of the restrictive chains of tradition and religion, those of place and community, those of the family, even of one’s own biology. And with the inevitable forward march of globalisation; the collapse of restrictions on capital flows and financial deregulation; the disintegration of nation state borders, soon the values of the unencumbered self would stand victorious over the whole earth”
Paragraphs like this are truly excellent since, like the famous gestalt duck-rabbit illusion, they can be read in two ways: as a condemnation by post-liberals or as a celebration by meta-liberals. The meta-liberal antagonist of post-liberalism however would need to go even further than this, further even than liberals could ever stomach. That is how it would properly transcend liberalism. For the reign of the human subject that Fraser describes here falters from a meta-liberal perspective, not because it deterritorialises too much but because it doesn’t deterritorialise enough. It still hinges on the integrity of a naive humanist conception of the subject undermined by contemporary science and philosophy. While Harrington’s project attempts to construct a conservative framework beyond the humanist subject, the meta-liberal would rejoice in that subject’s dismantling and the potential inherent in the new freedoms it makes possible.
Fundamentally what we see, in all philosophies that don’t occupy the meta-liberal position I am now positing, is various gradations of idealism. What I mean by idealism, very broadly, is the position that some kind of mentalistic structure is require to keep a lid on the corporeal. Desire springs from the material, the corporeal, the worldly; virtually all political ideologies posit some kind of ideal structure—the state, tradition, the law, morality, the subject—whose job it is to keep a lid on libidinal-material forces. Even liberalism must posit the rational, autonomous human subject as a means through which desiring-materials can impose ideal constraints on themselves. Liberalism only succeeds in eschewing dictatorship by making us the monarch of our own flesh (to paraphrase Alexis Mincolla).
Against this then, meta-liberalism posits the liberation of the flesh. Not just the semiotic liberation made possible within the bounds of poststructuralism, but a real liberation that sits within the framework of the new materialist realism emerging in metamodern and post-postmodern philosophical trends. Ultimately, meta-liberalism is defined by how it takes materialism truly seriously. While all post-liberal philosophies seek to shackle capitalism, recognising its true nature as an unstoppable deterritorialising libidinal force from which no idealistic construction is safe, meta-liberalism celebrates capitalism’s deterritorialising nature and is comfortable with the consequences of setting human desire loose.
Meta-Liberalism & Centrifugal Politics
It is unlikely of course that this pure meta-liberal position could succeed in the real world. Since all politics is about desire-suppression, radical meta-liberalism sits outside the realm of the political as such and hence could not constitute a political movement. In politics, the side that promises order will tend to beat the side that promises anarchy, and so a radical meta-liberal movement would fail just as starkly as libertarian movements have always failed. However, just as libertarianism was distilled into a marketable neoliberalism, and NRx into post-NRx, meta-liberalism could also mellow into something that is capable of effectively opposing post-liberalism in the public sphere.
This mellowed meta-liberalism would push the positive case for capitalism’s continuous dissolution and reconfiguration of human and posthuman subjects, enmeshment of those subjects in continually novel matrices of desire, and generally facilitative role in desire’s expression in the material realm. While conforming to the constraining necessities of the political realm, this worldview would eschew post-liberalism’s suspicion of novelty and difference in favour of a radical embrace of alterity—true alterity—not just as a phenomenon but as a process: flight. Where post-liberalism is oriented towards tradition, meta-liberalism is xenotropic, aiming itself at a socio-cultural beyond.
To put it simply, this would be an ideology of exit; it would be an ideology whose sole, surreptitious motive is to poke holes in the container and multiply lignes de fuites. Against the centripetal politics of liberalism and the static politics of post-liberalism, it would posit a centrifugal politics. It would provide a confluence point for elements of the exit-oriented left and right to push for new meta-political architectures permitting maximum diversion and exploration. It would proliferate identities, territories, perspectives, and ways of being. It would be the “liberal” post-liberal opponent worthy of facing current conservative post-liberalisms.