Hailed as a cinematic masterpiece, Fritz Lang’s 1927 expressionist epic Metropolis tells the story of New Babylon, a grotesquely hierarchical city-state ruled by the capitalist baron Joh Fredersen and dependent on the labor of a multitude of workers who live and toil in a dark, dangerous underground city. One day, Freder, the magnate’s son, interrupts his languid idyll to follow the virginal beauty Maria down to the workers’ city, where the brutality of their conditions is revealed to him in the event of a worker’s fatal accident. Long story short—cutting out the mad scientist and the automaton he builds to foment foolish revolutionary fervor among the workers—Freder falls in love with Maria and together they restore sanity, compassion and balance to New Babylon.
The moralizing leitmotif of the film—which Lang himself would later denounce in 1965—is the philosophy Maria evangelizes to the workers: “The Mediator Between Head and the Hands Must Be the Heart.” Freder and Maria provide the Heart that can soften the cold arrogance and exploitative instincts of the baron’s Head, to make life more bearable for the Hands. Most importantly, by embracing this anti-communist, pro-worker corporatism, Maria, Freder and Fredersen are able to get the machines of New Babylon humming again for the common good.
The enduring appeal of this political vision today is manifest in the work and popularity of a group of thinkers on the right known as the “post-liberals,” Chad Pecknold, Gladden Pappin, Adrian Vermeule, Patrick Deneen and Sohrab Ahmari among them. Post-liberals begin from the conviction that liberalism is corrupt. It is politically corrupt in that its pretense to neutrality masks the imposition of a specific, comprehensive vision of the good life. And it is morally corrupt because that vision—characterized by the celebration of self-discovery, self-expression and the jubilant shedding of all natural limits—has isolated and deformed the souls of those whom it promises liberation. To the post-liberal mind, liberalism’s chafing against limits is the common root of society’s myriad ills: from the offshoring of manufacturing jobs and creeping surveillance of tech corporations, to ruinously woke universities, the decline of the nuclear family and church attendance, and increases in “transgenderism,” addiction, suicide and divorce. Liberalism, they say, encourages us to see personal choice as paramount, promising an illusory kind of freedom we purchase at the cost of melting into air all that is solid.
In response, post-liberals advocate two things. First, conservatives must shed what Deneen has called a “defensive-crouch conservatism” that has defined Republican Party strategy for decades. Rather than merely protecting rights dear to conservatives—like the free exercise of religion—conservatives should cast aside liberal shibboleths like rights and reticence altogether and wield the state apparatus to implement the true common good. Second, some post-liberals, like Deneen and Ahmari, believe we must adopt a brand of explicitly pro-worker conservatism. Along with their favored politicians—Republican senators J. D. Vance, Josh Hawley and Marco Rubio—they cling (now seven years on) to Trump’s 2016 victory in the electoral college, which they see as heralding a new worker-oriented conservative populism. “The voters seem to be with us,” Ahmari recently told Politico.
As the post-Great Recession political consciousness comes into its own, it is an auspicious moment for new thinking about the “dealignment,” and possible “realignment,” of the American two-party system. Two new post-liberal books—Deneen’s Regime Change, which was published in June, and Ahmari’s Tyranny, Inc., out this month—can be seductively refreshing in their critique of shopworn liberal and conservative ideas. But they frame their pro-worker ambitions within a traditionalist, “common good” approach to politics. This choice raises a deep question: Is a classical worldview premised on social balance compatible with the modern politics of working-class emancipation?
Deneen, a professor of political science, struck a deep vein with his 2018 book, Why Liberalism Failed. In the hand-wringing early days of the Trump administration, he accomplished the rare feat of winning plaudits from Rod Dreher, Cornel West, Barack Obama and Viktor Orbán for his “courageous” diagnosis of liberalism’s collapsing morale and crumbling institutions. His follow-up, Regime Change, is an effort to move beyond diagnosis, seize the interregnum and lay the groundwork for a badly needed successor ideology.
Deneen embraces the idea, popular in classical political theory, that politics is essentially a contest between the few and the many. With this framework, Deneen constructs a political cosmology that resolves into four categories along two axes. A political view either takes the side of the few or the many. And it either conceives the many as intrinsically conservative or intrinsically progressive. Liberals of various stripes are elitists because they fear either the radical progressivism of the many, or their backwards conservatism. Marxists pretend to side with the many whom they hope are—but deep down know not to be—progressive, slipping despite themselves into elitist vanguardism. Deneen’s post-liberal conservatism, by contrast, resolutely sides with the many, whom it knows to be conservative. Like much else in the book—besides his recounting of the suffering of canceled speakers at the hands of the college mob—this all happens rather quickly. Those familiar with Aristotle’s Politics, for instance, may doubt Deneen’s claim that the philosopher was an outright democrat; readers of Marx’s The Civil War in France likewise may resist Deneen’s attempt to paint the father of communism as an elitist.
For Deneen the few and the many are fixed, transhistorical classifications; what distinguishes the working class from the elites is their characteristic set of virtues and vices. Being a member of the “working class” means being a particular type of person, enjoying a fixed “birthright” or “station.” Working-class people are “grounded in the realities of a world of limits.” They know the “rhythms of seasons … born of close experience with reality.” They exhibit “frugality, inventiveness, craft, common sense, gratitude for small blessings, and, often, stoic cheerfulness even in the face of penury and suffering.” As for working-class “vices,” they “harbor resentments.” They are “crude and parochial” and run the perpetual risk of “simplemindedness,” “xenophobia” and “baseness.” Deneen even suggests that these vices have gotten the upper hand in the battle for the workingman’s soul, which explains the epidemic of deaths of despair.
But it’s not their fault. The vices are prevailing over the virtues because the other class—the elites—has itself succumbed to its own characteristic vices: selfishness, aloofness, rootlessness, self-satisfaction and hypocrisy. Consequently, the globalist elites who have reigned for the last fifty years or so have disassembled the “guardrails” that keep the working-class vices in check, denouncing God, matrimony and country as racist and sexist. The present elites—the “neoliberals,” the “laptop class,” the “woke” warriors who own “abstract value” and control the cultural and financial institutions (yes)—need to be replaced with “a better set of elites” who can bring about an “alignment of the elite and the people” in the name of the common good.
This changing of the elite guard is the eponymous “regime change” Deneen advocates. Several pearl-clutching reviewers have recoiled at Deneen’s apparent radicalism. Some on the right think, by definition, it belies any claim to conservatism, while liberals balk at what may seem like a call for a bigger, more successful January 6th. It is no doubt difficult to discern what exactly a “regime change” is for Deneen, but we can take him at his word when he disavows revolutionary violence. (Although he does impudently insinuate that the changing of the elites will be facilitated by a “muscular” showing from the working class.) More likely he has in mind something closer to what many are planning for a second Trump term: careful attention to personnel and centralizing presidential control over civil servants in administrative agencies. More generally, the levers of power—in government, universities, media and business—must be maneuvered by those who love even the unlovable among the “many”; elites who will courageously impose the limits that freedom, virtue and happiness require.
What critics on both left and right seem to miss about Deneen’s vision is that, ultimately, it is profoundly anti-revolutionary. That is precisely its appeal. Like Freder, the good, honest, loyal elites overcome by noblesse oblige and reverence for the Latin Mass will provide the Heart to keep the machines of America humming. In doing so, they hope to reconcile the working class and the ruling elite without upsetting the real order of things wherein the Hands keep working and the Heads, well, keep their heads.
Sohrab Ahmari distinguishes himself from the other post-liberals by clearly linking social ills to capitalist domination. Though he dedicates Tyranny, Inc. to “Adrian, Chad, Gladden, and Patrick” he is not, unlike those four, a contributor to the “Postliberal Order” newsletter. He also is not, unlike those four, an academic. Trained as a lawyer, he is a journalist and writer. In 2019 while op-ed editor at the New York Post, he wrote a widely discussed essay in the conservative Christian magazine First Things. In “Against David French-ism,” Ahmari attacks the “depoliticized politics” among the flaccid conservative establishment, advocating instead the “moral duty” to “recognize that enmity is real” and to play the culture war for keeps. He parlayed that notoriety into co-founding Compact magazine, which publishes the kind of takes from left and right that complain of being blinked by “liberal orthodoxy,” and seeks to nurture a pro-worker, anti-progressive populism.
In Tyranny, Inc., Ahmari observes, with journalistic detail, the many ways in which the ostensibly “free market” so lionized by his compatriots on the right is in fact suffused with coercion. He chronicles how through just-in-time scheduling practices, nondisclosure agreements, arbitration clauses, the devastation of firms and jobs by vulture capital, the privatization of essential services and the erosion of local media, and the cynical manipulation of bankruptcy law, “neoliberal elites” and the corporations they own grind the working class into submission and despair. For anyone with a humane interest in avoiding suffering and enabling flourishing, this situation is intolerable, a point masked only by ideology or cruelty. In his concrete, detailed account of how the system is rigged against many working people, Ahmari’s book provides welcome relief from the dizzying and dubious intellectual histories offered by Deneen.
Ahmari’s framework is compelling in some essentials. He understands class in terms of the historically specific positions created by the different roles that people play in capitalist production. Class conflict occurs between owners of productive assets and non-owners, including wage workers, not between the “laptop class” and car dealers, nor between fossilized abstractions of the “few” and the “many.” He sees clearly that politically objectionable coercion is everywhere and some of the most pressing forms of oppressive coercion are exhibited by corporations and market actors. They act with government support but solidly within the “private” sphere. And he acknowledges that the goal of a pro-worker politics should be, in the first instance, to build the “countervailing power” of the poor and working class to combat the structural power advantages enjoyed by capitalists in market society, not acquiescing to their position in the pecking order.
Among Ahmari’s more acute observations is his clear-headed rejection of what he terms “pseudo-Burnhamite theories of class.” Such views—common among post-liberals—pretend that “the college-educated precariat is in the driver’s seat of the national economy, of politics and culture.” Proponents of these views fail to take seriously the way in which developments in material conditions of production bring into being and then constrain classes. They go on to embrace a “downright ludicrous politics centered on preaching timeless virtues.” (Here Ahmari could justifiably cite Regime Change, with its call for more virtuous elites, as a clear example, not to mention darling-of-the-post-liberals Senator Josh Hawley’s recent Manhood: The Masculine Virtues America Needs.)
Ahmari, by contrast, traces the emergence of two classes—“the capitalist few who controlled productive assets” and “the multitudes who lacked any means of survival but to sell their labor power for wages”—to the industrialization of capitalism throughout the nineteenth century. Because he sees class as a historically specific outgrowth of the organization of economic production, Ahmari adopts a kind of determinism about how our market society works, and what workers can achieve within its constraints. “A private equity partner today might be a conservative Catholic,” Ahmari points out, but his religious values, which preach charity, are no match for his “economic imperatives” to prey on the vulnerable.
Despite these differences with other post-liberals—and whatever the rhetoric about a left-right synthesis—there is no question that Ahmari is still a man of the right. Part of the explanation, no doubt, has to do with his culturally conservative views, informed by his Catholicism (he converted in 2016). He is openly hostile to what he called, after a visit to the Labor Notes conference in 2022, “lifestyle leftism” with its “obsession with boutique sexual causes,” its concern for immigrants and refugees, and its “corrupt bargain with the subsidy-hungry green wing of capital.” But it isn’t so much his social views that divide Ahmari from the labor leftists whose views he expresses broad sympathy for. (Indeed, similar criticisms of “lifestyle liberalism” and “green capital” can be found on the “anti-woke” left—as Ahmari is keen to point out. And in Tyranny, Inc. he avoids wading into social issues at all.) Rather, it is his understanding of politics as “the shared quest for the common good of the whole” that he shares with other post-liberals like Deneen.
According to this tradition of thought, the circumstances of politics—the problem that makes it necessary to cooperate for the common good of the whole—is “the existence of rivalrous classes, arrayed against each other along lines of wealth and ability.” Factions—the “few” and the “many”; the Head and the Hands—threaten to tear society asunder. To combat this, the “statesman” seeks to “govern these classes for the good of the whole, taking into account the virtues and vices peculiar to each.” This fundamental commitment doesn’t just distinguish Ahmari from the left—that would hardly bother him after all. The problem with this commitment is that it leads to an untenable account of the goals and methods of political change.
With rather gauzy memory, Ahmari tells us that the judicious balance of social forces during the New Deal era of “socially managed capitalism” yielded “a generally happy time of broad prosperity.” Of course, this golden age was relatively short-lived. Why didn’t the compromise hold? Ahmari’s answer is simple: a foreign, unnatural pathogen took hold. In what he calls the “neoliberal counterpunch,” a “small group of disgruntled intellectuals” took advantage of the interlocking crises of the 1970s to convince enough corporate and political elites that deregulation, privatization and the subordination of politics to markets were the roads to a noncoercive and prosperous society. The results of the neoliberal abandonment of the New Deal’s social compromise—which the bulk of Tyranny, Inc. compellingly details—were disastrous. However, though there may be a “mirage of inevitability” to these trends, once we see them for what they are—political choices by a misled elite—Ahmari assures us we can overturn these decisions and return to socially managed capitalism and class harmony through “politics.”
This isn’t just flimsy history. It is theoretically incoherent. Ahmari is torn between two visions of class politics: a classical battle between the few and the many and a modern struggle between different roles shaped by the historical forces of capitalism. On the one hand, capitalists are locked in by their class position and the logic of market competition to use all advantages to exploit workers. In the face of this hard compulsion, appeals to elite virtue are silly. On the other hand, elite statesmen can engage in politics, understood as the “shared quest for the common good of the whole.” But which is it? Are elites rapacious capitalists? Or judicious elders managing class compromise?
Ahmari’s class realism should lead to the view that capitalist acquiescence in the New Deal class compromise—such as it was—was little more than a temporary concession made under extraordinary circumstances: economic collapse followed by American market dominance floated by military hegemony. In that case, the “neoliberal counterpunch” would simply be a continuation of class conflict after an anomalous hiatus. Yet here Ahmari balks, adopting Deneen’s elitist explanations of political change and portraying neoliberalism as a sudden rupture vaguely accounted for by the conspiratorial efforts of rogue intellectuals. It is, of course, partly true that neoliberalism was driven to an unusual degree by a committed cadre of intellectual ideologues. But neoliberalism’s leading lights were never far removed from corporate and class interests, nor did capitalist elites need to be converted to some alien intellectual project in order to embrace free-market ideas. Rather, it is at least as correct to understand the “intellectual project” of neoliberalism as an expression of capitalist class interest. This inclination, first to imagine a New Deal order hardened in amber, and then to narrate its demise in conspiratorial terms, reveals the residue of the classical view of politics: wise leaders negotiated a collectively beneficial balance, only to be snared in the trap of some greedy and vicious faction of the establishment. Seeing the world this way, you might be tempted after all to think that all we need to restore social harmony is “regime change” among the elite.
When Ahmari turns from diagnosis to prescription, he slips into the classical view: politics is a conflict between timeless entities engaged in a permanent rivalry. Since “coercion is inevitable in human affairs,” the metaphor that emerges to structure politics is “balance.” If balance is the goal, then the point of developing “countervailing power” for the working class is to get “workers and the asset-less to the point where they can give genuine consent to the economic order as a whole.” But this draws a limited horizon for political action. Somewhat obviously, a different goal would be to build countervailing power among the poor and working classes in order to win. What does winning look like? At a minimum it requires that the poor are no longer subordinated to an elite, no matter how virtuous that elite or how carefully a balance has been struck between them.
The basic error of liberalism, according to the post-liberals, is its conflation of freedom with the absence of limitation or constraint. In a commencement address at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, Ahmari told the graduates that “we free our minds precisely by shackling them to an orthodoxy, to a tradition.” In Tyranny, Inc., Ahmari invokes a thought with the same shape in defending the necessity of market regulation: “what at first appears as a restriction is, in truth, a source of freedom.” This theme resonates throughout the growing post-liberal catalog, from Adrian Vermeule’s screeds against the progressive effort to transcend natural limits, to Deneen’s bizarre effort to blame factory closures on John Stuart Mill’s “experiments in living.” On this telling, coercion is inevitable; genuine freedom requires willing subordination to right reason. It won’t do to defend liberalism by touting its commitment to protecting individuals’ pursuit of their idiosyncratic good. For the post-liberals, this is a monkey’s paw: individual freedom inevitably leads to social malaise. And they are correct that liberal freedom, or negative liberty, is an inadequate basis for a flourishing society. Where they go astray is in concluding that the sole alternative to undisciplined liberal freedom is subordination to an external authority.
In his 2021 paean to tradition, The Unbroken Thread, Ahmari recounts the story of Maximilian Kolbe, a Catholic priest from Poland who sacrificed himself to save the life of another prisoner in Auschwitz. Ahmari writes admiringly of Kolbe, “his apparent surrender becomes his triumph. And nailed to the Cross, he told his captors, in effect: I’m freer than you.”1 Kolbe’s story is moving and makes for useful catechism. To be free is not to be limitless. Rather, to be free requires being guided by reason. For Kolbe, reason’s light emanated from Catholic teaching. But this insight is not the exclusive province of a classically oriented Catholicism. It is a key insight of Enlightenment republicanism.
In 1781, Immanuel Kant observed ironically: “The light dove, cleaving the air in her free flight, and feeling its resistance, might imagine that its flight would be still easier in empty space.” Kant’s point is that what may appear as resistance to some valuable activity is sometimes a condition of the possibility of that very activity. For Kant, this applies to the acquisition of knowledge about the world, as well as the exercise of freedom in action. In one of the most prominent discussions of freedom in all of Enlightenment philosophy, Kant offers a story quite like Kolbe’s. In the Critique of Practical Reason—a book published on the eve of the French Revolution that was widely read to provide a philosophical basis for the Revolution’s republican ambitions—Kant gives the example of a man standing in the shadow of the gallows meant for him. This man receives an offer from his prince to spare his life if only he would “give false testimony against an honorable man whom the prince would like to destroy under a plausible pretext.” Kant asks us to imagine ourselves in this position. Whether or not we predict that we would have the strength to resist making the false accusation to save our own skin, we know that we could do so. For Kant, this indicates our inescapable recognition of our own freedom: susceptibility to the moral law within.
Ultimately, Ahmari’s and Deneen’s mistake—a mistake that runs deep in post-liberal political thought—is to suppose that the only way to avoid the arbitrariness and libertinism of undisciplined thought and action is to yoke oneself to authority or tradition. This ignores the fact that a mature person can give the moral law to herself. It ignores the possibility of dignity. Freedom does require submission and discipline. It requires submission to and the discipline of one’s own faculty of self-critical reason. It is incompatible with submission to some external authority, tradition or dogma. This is what makes genuine freedom—the sort that it is worthwhile to cultivate, and that forms the basis of an honorable life—so difficult. This kind of freedom cannot be given by someone else. That is not to say one must go it alone. To the contrary, cultivating one’s capacity for reason requires the care, friendship and tutelage of others (not to mention adequate material resources). But in the end, you cannot outsource freedom.
Freedom, for republicans like Kant, consists in having no masters. In politics, having no masters is a condition that can only be brought about by the once-subordinated class itself. If the masters remove their own crowns willingly, they have the power to put them back on; republican freedom is something that by definition cannot be given, only taken. The post-liberals overlook this because they conflate “having no master” with “having no limits.” But these are not the same thing. Recognizing the value of having no masters reminds us that the goal of building countervailing power among the poor and working class is not to achieve balance and to preserve the common good “of the whole,” which takes for granted that “the whole” must include an elite that dominates an underclass of the poor. The point is to overcome a world with masters.
If you think—plausibly enough—that the illusion of limitlessness is a source of suffering in American society, and if you also think—wrongheadedly—that the only alternative to libertinism is willing subordination, then you will have a difficult time grasping the idea that freedom consists in having no masters. For Deneen, this means that freedom for the working class requires subordination to an elite enlightened by its classical virtues; for Ahmari, this means that the working class must be empowered in order to strike a better balance with the few. Each of these views stops well short of not simply what a pro-labor politics requires, but what a democratic and just world demand.