– English below –
Naar aanleiding van een bespreking van een recente bundel met verkenningen van het postliberalisme, vroegen de aanwezigen mij iets te vertellen over mijn persoonlijke kennismaking met deze stroming. Deze leuke vraag bleek nog niet zo eenvoudig te beantwoorden. Een nadere reflectie daarop bracht mij tot dit antwoord:
In response to a discussion of a recent volume of explorations of postliberalism,1 those present asked me to say something about my acquaintance with this movement. This excellent question turned out to be not so easy to answer. A closer reflection on it brought me to this answer.
My introduction to postliberalism must have taken place about seven years ago when I spent a year on the Princeton University campus. There I participated, among other things, in the activities of Robert P. George’s James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions.2 Professor George may not be the prototype of a postliberal. However, the meetings of his program taught me that it is possible, and indeed necessary, to look critically at the development of the democratic constitutional state by reference to a fixed benchmark.
That benchmark, and the foundation of the American experiment, was the idea of ‘self-government rooted in truth.’3 In this regard, the concept of truth can be defined for our purposes in various ways, such as natural law, religion, or Tradition.
When the last part of the expression, ‘rooted in truth,’ is dropped, we find ourselves in ‘a concrete bunker without windows.’ Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI used this expression during his speech to the German Bundestag on September 22, 2011.4 The more I looked in recent years at the contemporary institutional design of the democratic constitutional state, which English-speakers commonly call liberal democracy, the more it struck me that that is indeed the situation in which this form of government has come to be. For example, the soul has disappeared from European cooperation. Also, the original, valuable idea behind human rights has largely disappeared from view.
We might say that the democratic constitutional state has degenerated into a purely liberal democracy. The image of a bunker is also matched by the defensive attitude among its supporters that can be observed. The mere reference to the original idea of ‘self-government rooted in truth,’ as espoused by the American Founding Fathers, arouses resentment.
In essence, I see postliberalism as a possible remedy for this shortcoming. It attempts to open the windows again. It can give us back the listening heart, which Solomon asked for when he became king.5 As Benedict put it, it is about ‘the capacity to discern between good and evil, and thus to establish true law, to serve justice and peace.’
If such a restoration of ‘self-government rooted in truth’ can be achieved within contemporary liberal frameworks, all the better. It would then be the return of natural law liberalism as espoused by Tocqueville. Post-liberalism, therefore, is not the same as anti-liberalism to me. For such a recovery, however, it is essential first to recognize the seriousness of the current situation.
I also consider the possibility that this is no longer feasible with the development that liberalism has undergone. Doubts about that have arisen. In that case, the question is: what then? Indeed, the answer to this is not yet unambiguous, but then the rule applies: we will not last long in the bunker either.
Postliberalism can help the democratic constitutional state break out of the bunker into which this form of government has ended up despite itself. That is true not only on an institutional level but also culturally. Moreover, it does so in an intellectually challenging way. Think, for example, not only of George but also of the work of leading postliberals such as Patrick Deneen and Adrian Vermeule.6
Groen van Prinsterer
Critics may remark that the discussions initiated by postliberals have common ground, not only with themes already raised by Tocqueville but also with Dutch historian and politician Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer’s Unbelief and Revolution (1847). Such is undeniably the case.7
At the same time, it may offer the beginnings of a concrete solution direction in the form of an antirevolutionary or Christian-historical constitutional law. After all, experience with that has been gained in the Netherlands and Europe during the past century and a half.
Contemporary postliberals will immediately add that it is a misunderstanding to think that only Groen’s circles are interested in developing listening hearts. What is at stake is the sustainability of the democratic constitutional state for all ‘people of good will.’
1. Patrick Overeem & Hans-Martien ten Napel (eds.) Het radicale midden overzee. Verkenningen van het postliberalisme, Utrecht: Eburon 2021.
2. https://jmp.princeton.edu (accessed January 17, 2022).
3. Term borrowed from Todd Huizinga.
4. https://www.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/speeches/2011/september/documents/hf_ben-xvi_spe_20110922_reichstag-berlin.html (accessed January 17, 2022).
5. 1 Kings 3: 9.
6. See Why Liberalism Failed (published 2018) and Common Good Constitutionalism (published 2022), respectively.
7. https://europeanconservative.com/articles/essay/unbelief-the-root-of-totalitarian-trends-in-liberal-democracy/ (accessed January 17, 2022).