These can be found below.
The keynote speech by Adrian Pabst, Professor of Politics at the University of Kent and author of Postliberal Politics; The Coming Era of Renewal (2021), is available through the Thijmgenootschap site, where it is also possible to become a member.
Torn Between Two Lovers
1. A daily current affairs program on Dutch radio late at night has started more or less the same way since the 1970s. A fragment of the song ‘Gute Nacht Freunde’ by Reinhard Mey is heard. Next, a heavy voice says: outside it is [so many] degrees, inside is sitting [and then follows the name of the presenter of that evening].
With a variation on this last formulation, we could say today: outside, the assembled constitutional law scholars of the country are meeting. In Tilburg, the annual Constitutional Law Conference is currently taking place. Inside, we find a somewhat rebellious group from different disciplinary backgrounds equally engaged in constitutional studies but slightly differently.
Is this a conscious rebellion on my part (after all, I should have been present in Tilburg)? No. It is true that when Patrick Overeem and I planned this symposium (postponed because of the corona pandemic), I knew that today’s meeting (postponed for the same reason) would take place. However, the choice of dates on which both Adrian Pabst and Patrick and I were available was not that wide.
Still, it may well have played a small part that outside, in Tilburg, at least some (of course, I must not generalize) are inclined to defend contemporary liberal democracy seemingly without much reservation. Within the Netherlands and internationally, that applies to quite a few historians, philosophers, political scientists, and public administration experts, among others, as well.
Among such scholars, the conviction prevails that there is a good reason for such a defense. After all, democracy is under pressure worldwide and within the West. Within the West, the threat is usually seen in ‘populism.’ It is essential to make democracy more militant against that danger. That can be done, for example, by making the content of civic education in schools less non-committal.
Equally, a somewhat defensive attitude can be discerned at the European level. To be sure, there is every reason to critically follow certain political and constitutional developments in member states like Hungary and Poland. Still, it is sometimes hard to escape the impression that the European Union more readily points to others than it is prepared to critically look at its own functioning in terms of democracy and the rule of law.
It is certainly not the case that a populist sentiment prevails inside this room. Today’s keynote speaker would not feel comfortable with that either, and rightly so. However, it is also probably not the case that the majority accepts and defends contemporary liberal democracy without much reservation. Instead, a number of those present will want to preserve its more vital aspects while simultaneously correcting a number of its weaker aspects.
With this, almost without realizing it, a broad sketch was provided of what Patrick, in his concluding chapter, calls the moderate (primarily British) variant of postliberalism. In the polarized climate that prevails outside, feeling ‘torn between two lovers’ (liberalism and postliberalism) is already an outspoken position. It often appears to be all or nothing. Either you are for us, and then you belong, or you are against us, and then we ‘cancel’ you if you are not careful.
2. I am incredibly grateful to Patrick Overeem for taking the initiative to prepare the volume The Radical Middle Overseas. Explorations of Postliberalism and his efforts to have it published before the end of last year, and indeed for organizing this symposium. I thank the contributors to the volume for their insights into the phenomenon of postliberalism, both in its moderate and somewhat more radical (American) variants. I will highlight a couple of those insights here, thus emphatically, without pretending to be exhaustive. Fortunately, several authors, including some I will not mention now, will be speaking later themselves.
A first insight, stemming from Bas Hengstmengel’s chapter, is that although one does not have to be religious to find postliberalism an exciting movement, it is not held against you either if you are or if you are simply theologically interested. Indeed, this chapter convincingly demonstrates how postliberalism itself has partly theological roots. Without some knowledge of that background, it is probably difficult to fathom postliberalism fully.
Incidentally, that provides a further contrast with outside and the somewhat defensive nature of at least some discussions there. It is positive that, with the revival of comparative constitutional law (comparative politics has long been an established subfield), the study of the state phenomenon has become more interdisciplinary. Theology, however, is still often left out of the picture, and wrongly so. Wrongly so, since it has been reflecting on humankind for a long time and fundamentally. That matters because only a realistic image of the human person, i.e., not one in terms of an autonomous individual, can function as a starting point for ‘good government.’
A second insight, stemming from the article by Menno R. Kamminga, is that postliberalism does not imply a fallback on the national state or only local communities without further ado. Indeed, it takes the premise of subsidiarity from the classical legal tradition seriously and criticizes globalization’s (neoliberal) excesses. However, this is not the same as advocating a ‘national conservatism,’ no matter how stimulating some of its protagonists may be intellectually in their own right.
The third insight, stemming from Ronald van Raak’s contribution about ‘brushing up the liberal feathers,’ is that postliberalism is not by definition anti-liberal. That was already briefly demonstrated earlier. Instead, it raises the question of whether everything that presents itself as ‘liberal’ today can seriously lay claim to that term. It might be a more fruitful strategy for postliberals to regard ‘real’ liberals as potential allies rather than opponents.
A fourth insight, to which I draw attention in my own contribution, is that it would be a misrepresentation to see postliberalism as a hypothetical alternative to ‘real existing’ liberalism. For example, the classical-liberal conception of religious freedom, for which much is still to be said, appears to have been largely abandoned.
A fifth and final insight, arising from Sophie van Bijsterveld’s contribution, is that doubt is possible regarding the validity of some more radical postliberal analyses, such as that of Patrick Deneen in his otherwise impressive book Why Liberalism Failed (2018).
Doubt is O.K., at least in the academy, but – I am going very much against the spirit of the times here – likewise in politics. The most outstanding merit of postliberalism is that it has reinvigorated intellectual debate in recent years. In doing so, it is a vital force in many of the disciplines mentioned earlier. The achievement of (new) certainties is, in comparison, emphatically relegated to second place. It is not always so bad to feel torn between two lovers.
3. I will conclude with a short discussion, out of necessity, of a theme that I could and would have liked to treat at a much greater length. Perhaps there will be an opportunity for this later during the discussion. It concerns the relationship between postliberalism and Catholic social teaching. The contributions of Maarten Neuteboom, Ronald Ossewaarde, and the aforementioned final chapter by Patrick Overeem, among others, touch on this subject.
Perhaps precisely as a non-Catholic, I am struck by how strong that relationship is, both in the more moderate and radical variants of postliberalism. Admittedly, in his recent book Postliberal Politics. The Coming Era of Renewal (2021), Adrian Pabst also refers to similar sources of inspiration, such as Anglican, Orthodox, and Protestant social thought. However, as a relative outsider, I can safely say that the Catholic tradition stands out. Pope Francis’ latest encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, has simply no equivalent.
The interesting thing about noting this kinship between Catholic social teaching and postliberalism is that the former is nonpartisan. There is practically no political movement that bases itself entirely on this teaching. Usually, elements are singled out. However, historically, kinship can be noted between postwar Christian Democracy and Catholic social thought.
Still, in line with, for example, Michael P. Fogarty’s classic Christian Democracy in Western Europe from 1957, it is best to consider ‘Christian democracy’ in this context primarily as a political ideal. Various parties and movements may comply with that ideal to a greater or lesser extent at any given time.
For example, Fogarty wrote about Christian Democracy in the United Kingdom, although it has never known a significant Christian Democratic party. According to Fogarty, however, Christian-democratic influences could be discerned in the Labour Party in particular.
In more recent times, the question has been raised in the United States from the academic side whether Christian Democracy would not become the next European import. That is because of the difficult choices that sometimes have to be made between Democratic and Republican candidates. When Pope Benedict XVI addressed the German Bundestag ten years ago, he referred to the Greens as an excellent example of a contemporary application of Catholic social thought.
That last example indicates that Catholic social thought is not primarily, let alone exclusively, about abortion and related micro-ethical issues. Instead, it is about an ‘integral humanism’; about human and natural ecology in their interrelatedness. As Adrian Pabst attempts, that requires finding a new balance between common good and pluralism. In short, to rediscover a ‘radical middle,’ which might even function again as a ‘Big Tent.’ Many people will then presumably have to feel less torn between two lovers.