What does our moment require? An aristocratic revolution? Or a democratic reformation?
Regime Change: Towards a Postliberal Future by Patrick Deneen. Sentinel, 2023. 288 pp., $30
It’s Okay to Be Angry About Capitalism by Bernie Sanders. Crown, 2023. 320 pp., $28
This year has seen the appearance of two notable books, both calling for a radical transformation of America’s socio-economic and political status quo. The author of one of them, Patrick Deneen, has long been associated with conservative arguments and publications. Yet his new book is not particularly conservative at all in my view. The author of the other, Bernie Sanders, is a man long associated with democratic socialism. And yet his socialist arguments incorporate the very conservative sentiment the first book frequently invokes without providing sufficient examples in its support.
Insofar as intellectual arguments are concerned, Patrick Deneen’s Regime Change is the better book of the two. But if one genuinely wishes to understand the harms of state capitalism and liberal statism—and consider responses grounded “conservatively” in the collective achievements and socio-economic struggles that actually exist today—then Bernie Sanders’s It’s Okay to Be Angry About Capitalism is the wiser tome.
Deneen’s new book builds on his earlier Why Liberalism Failed, widely praised for its description of the philosophical flaws of liberal individualism. Those flaws have led to social discontent and cultural breakdown. Deneen ended Why Liberalism Failed calling for “patient encouragement of new forms of community that can serve as havens in our depersonalized political and economic order.” Statements like this situate the book firmly within a long tradition of conservative complaints about our liberal order and recommendations for localist solutions.
Regime Change, however, dismisses that prudential Burkean sentiment. Embracing the idea that conservatism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries partakes of liberalism’s sins, Deneen now deems the “postliberal” future inevitable. This future requires an “epic theory” to challenge the roots of the modern order entirely in order to recover or rebuild something more authentically natural.
A central component of the epic theory Regime Change lays out is a wholesale rejection of egalitarianism as it has evolved over the centuries since the Protestant Reformation. In Deneen’s view, modern egalitarianism has negatively transformed how most people today understand such ancient concepts as democracy or rights. His argument is that the demos deserves respect—but not the right to actually govern itself.
Deneen’s (ostensibly) more natural political order would be postliberal in the sense that it would unapologetically look to the cultivation of an elite few. Trained to practice proper rulership over the many, they would be able to establish laws that reflect collective norms—both cultural and economic—rather than individual interests stemming from some kind of social contract.
The resulting “mixed regime”—one that would balance the ambitions and abilities of the few with the multitude’s presumed longing for stability—would, in Deneen’s view, be able to address the challenges of collective life in a manner both virtuous and non-alienating, unlike what liberalism has given us. He calls this “common good conservatism.” And yet, just what it would be conserving is unclear—aside from those particular moral and cultural customs that Deneen thinks the working classes should observe in their lives, even when they, in fact, choose not to.
There is a great deal more in Deneen’s rich—and I think dangerous—book, but that is the gist of its ambitious, revolutionary, and decidedly unconservative proposal. Admittedly, some reviewers more aligned with America’s conservative movements than myself are less troubled than I by Deneen’s willingness to invoke an idealized natural hierarchy of a pre-Protestant Reformation, pre-liberal Europe as his postliberal guide. To name just a few, Jon D. Schaff, Adam Smith, and Ross Douthat operate with the assumption that, as Smith put it, “the question is not whether there will be an elite, but whether it will be a good one.”
But however seriously one takes Deneen’s diagnosis, the fact remains that he sees himself as urging this explicitly hierarchical revolution upon our present managerialist and statist status quo in the name of what he holds to be the common interests of the people. This is something that, in his view, only “aristopopulism” can achieve.
Sanders’ It’s Okay to Be Angry About Capitalism is similarly filled with ambitious, radical ideas, but it has no such revolutionary gist to it—at least not one laid out in such a way as to organize the book’s somewhat rambling arguments. Sanders is, of course, a politician, not a theorist. Still, he is a politician who over his career has done as much as anyone to make more mainstream the idea that capitalism as it presently operates isn’t a natural or virtuous arrangement of affairs. In the process, he has led large numbers of not-otherwise-radical people to think critically about alternatives.
As I wrote in Current previously, “[Sanders’s] greatest accomplishment wasn’t helping make the Democratic party more comfortable with certain (re-named!) democratic socialist ideas but rather helping bring into the mainstream a fruitful mess of radicalisms, all of which are busy promoting their own alternative democratizing visions. . . . Bernie Sanders failed to win the presidency, but he didn’t fail to revitalize, with his words and actions, long moribund ideas in America.” It’s Okay to Be Angry reveals the fruit of this work, taking on health care, Wall Street, college education, Fox News, and much more.
Those looking for a thoughtful democratic socialist critique of the liberal capitalist state will not find it in the pages of Sanders’s book. Indeed, more than a third of the book is an interesting but not especially deep rehearsal of the greatest hits of Sanders’s political career and campaigns during the Trump years. Much of the rest reflects a progressive liberalism rather than something explicitly rooted in the visions of his hero, union leader and Socialist Party presidential candidate Eugene Debs. A close reader will see, nonetheless, a focus on productive work that arguably brings a critical unity to Sanders’s case against the “oligarchs” and “billionaires” and the “über–capitalist system.” This focus positions Sanders’s book as a wiser radical response to the problems of today than Deneen’s anti-egalitarian aristopopulist suppositions.
Deneen writes often in Regime Change about “the many” or the “commoners” or “the working class,” at times criticizing them as “far less likely to exhibit certain kinds of virtues related to marriage, family, work, and criminality than the ‘elites’ that they often disdain.” Yet he repeatedly posits them as a moral, non-aspirant, non-managerial loadstone, “more likely to be grounded in the realities of a world of limits and natural processes, in tune with the cycle of life and rhythms of seasons, tides, sun and stars.”
In other words, Deneen presents those who do practical, material work for living as a static category, a necessary component within a healthy society, but not an actual agent within it. For Sanders, on the other hand, practical, material work—whether in a factory or a classroom or a farm or an office—is connected to an active democratic dignity. It is in direct contrast to those financial elites whose wealth is tied to the flow of the economy itself, rather than to its productive results. Sanders, reflecting on his youthful experience on an agricultural commune in Israel, writes:
Work, to a large degree, defines who we are, what our social status is, and who our friends are . . . I don’t pretend to understand everything about human nature but I believe that, very deep in the souls of most people, is a desire to be part of their community and contribute to its well-being. People want to be productive and have a positive impact on the lives of their families. . . . While the world has obviously changed a lot since that kibbutz was created in the 1930s and since I worked there in the 1960s, what has not changed is the sense of empowerment that grows when working people are treated not as “employees,” but as “owners” who share a responsibility for defining the scope and character of their jobs. The sense of community and worker-empowerment that existed there was something that I have never forgotten. It confirmed my view that there are many ways to organize workplaces, and that we have a responsibility to identify the models that respect workers as human beings, and allow them to realize their full potential. . . . Whether someone is working on a farm, or in an automobile factory, hospital, or school, or delivering mail or writing a book, they want to know that what they do is meaningful and appreciated. They want to have a say about the nature of their work and how it is done . . . Is it really too much, in the twenty-first century, in the wealthiest country on earth, to begin creating an economy in which people actually have some power over what they do for forty hours or more a week?
Deneen is not entirely silent when it comes to contemporary capitalism’s responsibility for the financial globalism that has undermined the community-building power of workers, contributing to their suffering. As part of the disruptions to the status quo that he believes recovering a proper elite would necessitate, he mentions the importance of empowering unions, giving workers direct say on corporate boards (in the style of Germany’s Betriebsrat or workers councils), and using tariffs to slow outsourcing. But those few paragraphs pale beside the long sections devoted to attacking the moral individualism ingrained in the policies of the liberal state. In his view, a postliberal elite would model a community consciousness that would lift workers up.
Sanders goes far beyond Deneen’s acknowledged need to strengthen unions and increase the presence of workers on corporate boards. He pushes instead the radical idea of a social reconstruction of the deeply dysfunctional distribution of working opportunities and wages in the wealthiest country in the world. This is something Deneen, for all his talk about disrupting the system, never really considers.
When Sanders can pull himself out of the legislative bubble filled with predictable fights over climate change and infrastructure funding, he is clear that he wants to make a full-employment economy America’s social ideal. In order to achieve this ideal, he wants to guarantee health care, invest in environmentally sustainable work, redistribute wealth, closely regulate financial actors, increase taxes on powerful financial interests, ease the creation of worker cooperatives, and much more.
Too often his invocation of these aspirations unfortunately turns into just a recitation of a laundry list of government programs, in classic progressive liberal statist fashion. But sometimes he is able to see beyond this; sometimes he is able to break through the partisan cant that has been second nature for him for more than forty years. In those moments he talks about the goal of economic democracy—a change that he believes (I think correctly) would enable people within their families and communities to find themselves in alignment with a more virtuous “regime.” While not a religious man, Sanders’s collective vision of higher stage in the democratic evolution of capitalist state is, as I’ve noted elsewhere, downright Pentecostal:
If we accept that the truth will set us free, then we need to face some hard truths about American oligarchs. This country has reached a point in its history where it must determine whether we truly embrace the inspiring words in our Declaration of Independence, “that all men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights” . . . We have to decide whether we take seriously what the great religions of the world—Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and others—have preached for thousands of years. Do we believe in the brotherhood of man and human solidarity? Do we believe in the Golden Rule that says each and every one of us should “do unto other as you would have them do unto you”? Or do we accept, as the prevailing ethic of our culture, that whoever has the gold rules—and that lying, cheating, and stealing are OK if you’re powerful enough to be able to get away with it?
The condemnation of liberalism presented by Deneen and others frequently implies that talk of democratic equality and rights is incompatible with presumably conservative concepts like “brotherhood” and “solidarity.” To the extent that competitive capitalism leads us to assume that economically empowering individuals can only increase social alienation, and thus allow corrupt elites to impose their ideology upon us all, then Deneen’s prescription may make a dangerous degree of sense.
But Sanders’ arguments, supported as they are by the example of higher levels of solidarity and public goods in social democratic societies around the world, point to a different way—a more “left” way. This is a way truer to Christopher Lasch’s belief in building a democracy of producers and citizens—a belief that also inspired the teacher, Wilson Carey McWilliams, to whom Deneen admits he is most indebted for his conception of conservatism.
Maybe fraternity is something that individuals in all their liberal diversity can and still do build when social and economic space allows. That’s the wise suggestion McWilliams’s daughter, the political theorist Susan McWilliams Barndt, makes in response to Deneen’s book.
There are vast differences between the content of Deneen’s and Sanders’ radical proposals. Maybe the biggest difference is that Sanders presumes that workers can and will build communities and traditions when they are socially and economically and democratically empowered to do so. Deneen’s mixed regime, at the end, presumes that these desirable results can only be delivered to the workers from above.
Russell Arben Fox runs the History & Politics major and the Honors Program at Friends University, a small Christian liberal arts college in Wichita, KS, where he has lived with his wife and their daughters since 2006. He is a regular contributor to the localist website Front Porch Republic, the Religious Socialism blog sponsored by Democratic Socialists of America, and the Mormon blog By Common Consent.