Four Big Questions for the Counter-Revolution

This article originally appeared on N.S. Lyons’s Substack, The Upheaval. It has been republished here and lightly edited for style.

In recent weeks my thoughts have been roiled by a series of questions.

These questions are, essentially, root questions about the nature and future direction of what I will call, for lack of any better term, the Counter-Revolution—the informal and disorganized, but growing, and already global, network of people thinking about, writing about, and now increasingly building institutions with a mission of actively pushing back against the revolutionary tide of the (again for lack of a better term) “Woke” New Faith-Ideology.

What is fascinating about this Counter-Revolution is the surprising political breadth—indeed one might say diversity—of the people that have been brought together under its tent of opposition. Liberals, conservatives, and libertarians; rationalist humanists and the New Atheists; social conservatives, religious traditionalists, and neo-reactionaries; even some classical Marxists and left-labor-socialists; and many others that defy easy categorization—all have been at least temporarily united in shared recognition of an existential threat to their collective survival.

This diversity is remarkable, and inspiring. But it also produces what the Marxists dialecticians would be quick to label as contradictions—fundamental differences in orientation that, if not transfigured into a new synthesis, may fracture the, uh, Counter-Revolution.

Those contradictions are at the core of the four big questions that I’ve been distracted by, and which I’ve attempted to crystalize here. The reason that I’ve been preoccupied with them is, I think, that, at a deeper level, they are essentially the questions that will, depending on how they are answered, shape the future of what we might call Western Liberalism.

I don’t have the answers to these questions. Nor are they really new questions at all, exactly. But the more the Counter-Revolutionaries move from analysis to action, the more pressing they will become—and the more interesting, clarifying, and potentially productive more open debate about them will be.

These are those clarifying questions.

(I) Is Liberalism what needs to be saved, or the source of the problem?

Part of what began my ruminations on these questions was a very compelling recent podcast conversation between Bari Weiss and Jordan Peterson (that I definitely recommend you listen to in full) which touched rather inadvertently on several of them—and in particular on this one. That’s because Weiss and Peterson are among the leading figures in a large philosophical camp within the Counter-Revolution that I will call the Paleo-Liberals. (Other examples of Paleo-Liberals might include Andrew Sullivan, John McWhorter, James Lindsay, Helen Pluckrose, Steven Pinker, and Bret Weinstein.)

To simplify, their fairly straightforward argument essentially goes like this (whether they are left-leaning or right-leaning):

Classical Enlightenment Liberalism, and its associated outgrowths and institutions like liberal democratic political systems, capitalism, and scientific rationality, has produced the most free, creative, productive, healthy, peaceful, and un-terrible living conditions ever seen in the history of mankind—and we should be profoundly grateful for this. A key feature of this liberalism was an emphasis on the sovereignty of the individual over tribe, race, or other collective group. Only by placing the individual, and individual rights, at the center of our political philosophy were the ancient bonds of tribalism, slavery, and despotic tyranny broken.

Progress was going relatively well, with life continuing to become ever freer and materially better-off, until the liberal system came under assault by new, explicitly anti-liberal ideologies in the early 20th century. These anti-liberal ideologies (Communism and Fascism) that sprang up in opposition to Liberalism were eventually defeated in the West, but elements of them survived and went underground. The fundamental feature of these ideologies was that they were collectivist (of economic class or ethnic-nationality); and by dispensing with the rights of the sovereign individual they were also inevitably totalitarian.

Today, a left-wing strain of these ideologies has re-emerged as a form of Neo-Marxism mutated by post-modern critical theories, becoming the ideology of the New Faith. This ideology is fundamentally anti-liberal in origin and outlook; it is also fundamentally collectivist, emphasizing the abstract rights of identitarian groups (race, gender, sexuality, etc.) over the individual, much as Marxism put class ahead of the individual, with murderous results. Now, this revolutionary anti-liberal ideology is engaged in a struggle to overthrow and replace Liberalism, threatening to return us to an age of either totalitarian oppression or primitive tribalism.

The Paleo-Liberals’ answer is, based on this analysis, fairly straightforward: Liberalism must be reinforced by the renewal and reapplication of greater liberalism. That is, when the classical values of liberalism are restored to predominance in society—most importantly the preeminence of the individual over the collective—then the challenge to Western Liberalism will be defeated and liberal-democratic civilization saved.

There is, however, another powerful frame through which to analyze the emergence of the Revolution and its ideology: as the inevitable product of Liberalism itself. This is the view of a philosophical camp of the Counter-Revolution that I will call the Post-Liberals.

The Post-Liberal argument was, in recent years, perhaps best first articulated by Polish philosopher Ryszard Legutko in his 2016 book The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies. But it was most powerfully expressed—in the English-speaking world—by Patrick Deneen’s 2018 book Why Liberalism Failed.

Simplified, that argument goes like this: Liberalism made the radical autonomy of the individual its greatest good and highest goal. To achieve this total autonomy, man had to be freed from all external limits. On one hand, liberalism unleashed the power of technology and the machine of consumer capitalism with a mission to conquer nature and free us from all the material limits and wants imposed by her in her cruelty. On the other hand, Liberalism (far more influence by the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau than it would admit) set out to free man from all limits of inherited culture, religion, custom, tradition, hierarchy, place, behavioral norms, associations, and relationships—all of which came to be seen as obstacles of oppression standing in the way of the full realization of individual desire and liberty, as presumed to have once existed in a fantastical “state of nature” present before the corruption of history and its sins.

But there is a profound irony at the heart of Liberalism: as Deneen writes, “the more completely the sphere of autonomy is secured, the more comprehensive the state must become.” The more individuals are “liberated” from associations and traditions, the more there is a “need to regulate behavior through the imposition of positive law,” because the rights of individuals must be attained and guaranteed by something—and the state is the only option. Moreover, “as the authority of social norms dissipates, they are increasingly felt to be residual, arbitrary, and oppressive, motivating calls for the state to actively work toward their eradication.” This cycle is self-reinforcing as lighter and lighter burdens of obligation, responsibility, and restriction on individual desire and self-expression are felt to be intolerable. New rights are granted, which require a new expansion of the state to facilitate.

“Far from there being an inherent conflict between the individual and the state—as so much of modern political reporting would suggest—liberalism establishes a deep and profound connection: its ideal of liberty can be realized only through a powerful state. If the expansion of freedom is secured by law, then the opposite also holds true in practice: increasing freedom requires the expansion of law.”

Thus Liberalism “culminates in two ontological points: the liberated individual and the controlling state,” Deneen argues. “Hobbes’s Leviathan perfectly portrayed those realities: the state consists solely of autonomous individuals, and these individuals are “contained’ by the state.” Thus “this very liberation in turn generates liberalism’s self-reinforcing circle, wherein the increasingly disembedded individual ends up strengthening the state that is its own author.”

And, simultaneously:

“In this world, gratitude to the past and obligations to the future are replaced by a nearly universal pursuit of immediate gratification: culture, rather than imparting wisdom and experience of the past so as to cultivate virtues of self-restraint and civility, becomes synonymous with hedonic titillation, visceral crudeness, and distraction, all oriented toward promoting consumption, appetite, and detachment. As a result, superficially self-maximizing, socially destructive behaviors begin to dominate society.”

This is almost the polar opposite of the classical and traditional Christian conceptions of liberty, which did not mean being free to do whatever one wished in the pursuit of pleasure, but being free from enslavement to one’s base appetites—a condition predicated on the cultivation of a just and discriminating self-rule, through which one could, through the alignment of inner virtue with action and the fulfillment of duties and obligations, achieve over the course of one’s life a lasting sense of meaning and happiness.

Instead, in the end, freed into a state of atomization by liquid liberal modernity, we today find ourselves as individuals “replete with rights and defined by our liberty, but insecure, powerless, afraid, and alone.”

The result has been the emergence of totalitarian ideologies—like the budding New Faith—with their characteristic politicization of everything; but, far from being outside forces assailing Enlightenment Liberalism, they are, in this view, ideological products inevitably generated by late-stage Liberalism’s own internal contradictions. 

Thus, as Deneen puts it: “Liberalism has failed because liberalism has succeeded. As it becomes fully itself, it generates endemic pathologies more rapidly and pervasively than it is able to produce Band-Aids and veils to cover them[…]what we face today is not a set of discrete problems solvable by liberal tools but a systemic challenge arising from a pervasive invisible ideology. The problem is not just in one program or application but in the operating system itself. It is almost impossible for us to conceive that we are in the midst of a legitimation crisis in which our deepest systemic assumptions are subject to dissolution.”

“Taken to its logical conclusion,” Deneen argues, “liberalism’s end game is unsustainable in every respect: it cannot perpetually enforce order upon a collection of autonomous individuals increasingly shorn of constitutive social norms, nor can it provide endless material growth in a world of limits.” And, “If I am right that the liberal project is ultimately self-contradictory and that it culminates in the twin depletions of moral and material reservoirs upon which it has relied, then we face a choice… We can either elect a future of self-limitation born of the practice and experience of self-governance in local communities, or we can back inexorably into a future in which extreme license coexists with extreme oppression.”

These are not completely new arguments, of course. They in fact essentially mirror the message of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s (in)famous 1978 Harvard commencement address, A World Split Apart (delivered to rolled eyes in the West at the time), in which he warned that “society has turned out to have scarce defense against the abyss of human decadence” because “the defense of individual rights has reached such extremes as to make society as a whole defenseless against certain individuals. It is time, in the West, to defend not so much human rights as human obligations.”

Solzhenitsyn had concluded that “the mistake must be at the root, at the very basis of human thinking in the past centuries,” and that this is “the prevailing Western view of the world which was first born during the Renaissance and found its political expression from the period of the Enlightenment. It became the basis for government and social science and could be defined as rationalistic humanism or humanistic autonomy.” In this view, “the West ended up by truly enforcing human rights, sometimes even excessively, but man’s sense of responsibility to God and society grew dimmer and dimmer.” Ultimately, by this process, “Liberalism was inevitably displaced by radicalism; radicalism had to surrender to socialism; and socialism could never resist communism.”

But which of these analytic frameworks is correct? There may be few more important questions at this moment. The answer will necessarily determine the way forward for the Counter-Revolution, because, in response to the view of the Paleo-Liberals that today’s pathologies can be solved with a regenerative dose of moar liberalism (e.g. more individualism), the Post-Liberals (whose ranks might include, in addition to Deneen and Legutko, such figures as Sohrab Ahmari, R.R. Reno, Yoram Hazony, Christopher Caldwell, and Rod Dreher) will argue otherwise. If they are right, that will raise some very uncomfortable questions for the Paleo-Liberals, because the solution in that case might look more like something Hungary’s self-declared illiberal Victor Orban would come up with than Morning in America.

But if the Paleo-Liberals are right, then that path is likely to simply bring back upon ourselves exactly the kind of oppression the Post-Liberals fear.

(II) Is rationalism savior or suspect?

“The New Atheists,” Weiss says at one point in her conversation with Peterson, “may have much to answer for.”

Weiss was pointing out that, as many have now observed and examined at length (myself included), the Revolution can probably only be fully understood if it is recognized as not just an ideological movement, but literally as a new religion, in that it bears all the characteristic hallmarks of cult religious belief, language, and behavior. Moreover, Weiss was pointing to an argument (possibly made most influentially by Peterson) that humans are essentially religious beings, who are practically incapable of not believing in something, and that if organized, disciplined traditional religious faith structures are eliminated from their lives they will simply replace them with cruder, less conscious faith structures, including political ideologies. Or as Peterson replied to Weiss, you will just end up with “Stalin instead of God.”

In this view, the sweeping victory of secularism and the collapse of organized religion has had unintended consequences. Without religion, great numbers of people found themselves without any obvious source of meaning or higher structure in their lives, and a fuzzy, universalized “spirituality” did not provide any relief. Moreover, the loss of a community of fellow believers was a major blow, helping to advance atomization and inner despair. In response, these people increasingly turned to politics to fill the meaning and community-shaped hole in their lives once occupied by religion, widening and existentializing the psychological stakes of partisan societal divisions. The personal became political, and the political became personal. Soon, the New Faith emerged and took this process to its logical conclusion by transforming a matrix of seemingly purely political causes into a totalizing, dogmatic faith system with its own crude metaphysics.

If this is the case, then the New Atheists (outspoken figures like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, who helped popularize non-belief and championed scientific rationalism as a sufficient replacement) played an important ironic role in inadvertently creating the New Faith—which then immediately tried to cancel them precisely for their commitment to scientific objectivity and non-dogmatism, forcing their flight into the Counter-Revolution, where they have taken up their current awkward position alongside their former foes, the religious conservatives.

This helps reveal another consequential set of fault lines in the Counter-Revolution.

First, there is a camp that holds the view I’ve just outlined, and would argue that, if both parts of this narrative are correct (that the Revolution is a religion, and that it emerged as a direct product of non-belief), then it follows that the only real solution is to provide an alternative, superior source of meaning to people in contrast to the New Faith—most straightforwardly, some form of religious revival. (This was Solzhenitsyn’s argument in his Harvard address, in which in declared that the only solution to the totalitarian disasters create by “the calamity of a despiritualized and irreligious humanistic consciousness” would necessarily “exact from us a spiritual upsurge.”) Again for lack of a better term, I’ll call those with this view the spiritualists (yes, I know this has other connotations, feel free to suggest a better name).

A second camp, however, would accept the first proposition but not the second: the Revolution is a dogmatic new religion, but that is precisely the problem. In this view, the New Faith can be seen as a pre-modern reactionary movement (post-modern roots or not) and is in practice not that far removed from any other religious fundamentalist movement—like the Islamist Jihadists—bent on tearing down Western modernity, doing away with all the free-thinking intellectuals, ending scientific advancement (science being labeled a product of colonial white supremacy culture with no more inherent validity than witchcraft) and implementing an excruciatingly dull neo-theocracy where there would be no further blasphemy, including no music, dancing, or fun (as it would presumably all be racist). I will call these people the rationalists (Scott Alexander and the Rationalists might be mad, but I suspect many of them are already in this camp anyway).

From this view, the proper response to the predations of the New Faith is first to reinforce norms and structures of secular pluralism. Requiring someone to vocalize specific biology-defying gender pronouns they don’t believe in, for example, is wrong precisely because it forces a religious belief system on them that they don’t hold to—and this is just as much a problem for an atheist-humanist as for a Christian. But, moreover, it is precisely their sort of disciplined rational thinking that will be necessary to inoculate people against the simplistic and irrational mental pathologies of the Revolution.

Additionally, this camp (which I assume would include the New Atheists) would argue that since it was precisely organized religion that they and so many others were trying to free themselves from in the first place, and they have no desire to live under any, say, Christian-integralist polity any more than under the New Faith, trying to revive religion would also be a major tactical error—more likely to push liberal-minded people away than draw them into solidarity with the Counter-Revolution.

There is presumably a third camp that rejects the first premise (that the New Faith is a religion) as well, but I can’t then know which way they’d lean on the second.

What is interesting, on this question, is that it isn’t easy to divide members of the Counter-Revolution into spiritualist, rationalist, or other camps along the same lines as the Paleo- and Post-Liberals; in many cases their views seem to diverge in unpredictable ways. But, in any case, how one answers this question is likely to lead to very different prescriptions of what will be necessary moving forward.

(III) Is the machine of technological-capitalism sustainable, and is it a blessing or a curse?

Do we live in a world of limits? The answer to that question will have big consequences, no matter how it is answered.

As argued by the Post-Liberals discussed in Question I, the defining characteristic of Liberalism is that it rejects all limits—of self, custom, or nature. Which is why, ever since the era of Francis Bacon, Liberals have worked tirelessly to master nature, and thereby overcome natural constraints on liberty and want, whether via nitrogen fixation fertilizer, combustion engine, birth control pill, or cross-sex hormones.

Yet, there are some who argue that there are, always, eventually, limits that must be observed, and to attempt to pretend otherwise is only hubris and folly of the most dangerous kind. If, in the case of nature, there is some maximum point of finitude in available resources, and growth in consumption is proceeding exponentially, then—they would point out—by simple logic that growth cannot continue forever. Therefore limits on consumption must be observed.

When it comes to natural limits, such people tend to end up being called environmentalists. But, in another sense they could also be properly described as conservatives, in that their observance of limits stands in direct contradiction to the liberal project. It is interesting to observe that, in the United States, mainstream “conservatives” and “liberals” tend to each represent one side of the single coin that is Liberalism: generally speaking, “liberals” approve of the abolition of limits on custom, behavior, and relationships, but frown at the subjugation of nature in the pursuit of limitless consumption; “conservatives,” meanwhile, approve of the material bounty that comes from the overcoming of nature and her supposed limits, but oppose the tearing down of limits of the social and moral variety. (The private-jet-flying, globe-trotting, “neoliberal,” “socially liberal but fiscally conservative” multinational executive who occasionally makes concerned noises about climate change or human rights over cocktails in Dubai is probably closer to adopting his final form as a true Liberal.)

There are, again, two camps that tend to emerge here. Fortunately this time someone else has already come up with some good names for them.

That someone was Charles C. Mann, in his book The Wizard and the Prophet, in which he examines two distinct philosophical orientations through the lives of two characteristic figures, William Vogt and Norman Borlaug. Vogt, one of the founders of “environmentalism,” was a Prophet—he spent his life warning repeatedly that the human population and its consumptive appetites were growing faster than the earth’s carrying capacity could bear, and that Malthusian ruin would befall us all if we didn’t cut back. In other words, he was a Prophet that preached limits. Norman Borlaug, legendary agronomist, was a Wizard—rather than accepting limits on human population, his innovative research, over which he toiled in relative obscurity for decades, produced new varieties of high-yield, disease-resistant wheat that made him the “father of the Green Revolution,” transformed Mexico almost overnight from wheat importer to wheat exporter, doubled yields in India and Pakistan within five years, and saved an estimated one billion people from dying of starvation. So far, thanks to the technological revolution in agriculture he kick-started, all claims of the world running out of the food necessary to meet the needs of a growing population have consistently failed to come to pass.

Another way of describing them, then, is that Prophets are pessimistic about the ability of humanity to overcome limits through pure ingenuity, while Wizards hold faith (and I think that’s the right word) that innovation and technological advancement will always save the day and propel progress, even if we don’t yet know what those innovations will be or for sure that they will arrive in time.

As with Vogt and Borlaug, history has so far been unkind to Prophets on the scorecard of being right (and kind to humanity). But the Prophets would reply that it’s only a matter of time until they are proved right—unless you accept that there are no limits.

What does this have to do with the Counter-Revolution? Well, I can see some divides ready to open up here among its members. And this is a question on which people tend to have unusually strong opinions, perhaps because, as you may have already intuited, it is really an echo of the first question on the future of Liberalism.

Those who are clearly Wizards in orientation, such as Steven Pinker or Jordan Peterson (see his podcast with Marian Tupy for a great example of this side of the argument), tend to see technological innovation and free market, free trade, global capitalism as nearly unmitigated good things.

Those of a Prophet-orientation (perhaps most eloquently embodied by the author Paul Kingsnorth, but also including a growing number of the Post-Liberal conservatives like Patrick Deneen and others) tend to view these things with growing suspicion.

While the Wizards will point to charts of data demonstrating that the world is clearly getting better in almost every measurable material sense, the Prophets will tell them to look around and recognize the immaterial misery all around them; and while the Wizards will point to the promise of technology to ease our burdens, Prophets will argue that a naïve worship of scientific and technological progress is precisely what has led us into a dangerous relationship with our machines—in which those machines, from social media to artificial intelligence to genetic engineering (such as of bat-coronaviruses), now seem to rule over man rather than being ruled by him, and we have little choice but to prostrate ourselves before the inevitable historical forces of technological change whether we want to or not.

And while the Wizards would point out that technological progress and perpetual economic growth is the humming machine that now keeps billions of people alive, and so there is no moral alternative even if we wanted there to be, the Prophets would call this a short-sighted Ponzi scheme that will inevitably end in tears when the Tower of Techno-Babel collapses, and suggest we at least stock up on some cans of beans or something.

So there are some growing fissures here to be argued over, you could say.

(IV) Is a new balance possible?

Just because there are antagonistic divisions between two sides on these questions doesn’t necessarily mean there is only a binary way to answer them, however. So the final question is whether, on all of the above questions, a new equilibrium, a new balance, can be found in answer.

Can a new balance be found between the fantastic benefits produced by Liberalism and its pathologies?

Can a new balance be found between the scientific, skeptical rationalism that has powered the wonders of Modernity, and the meaning and community provided by traditional religious spirituality that, now lost, may be in the process of being hijacked and replaced by totalitarian political ideology?

Can a new balance be found between the benefits and challenges of technological change, free markets, consumer capitalism, and self-imposed limits?

These are a few of the questions that will help determine the future—not only of the Counter-Revolution, but of our societies as a whole.

Again, I do not have the answers to them. But, the fact that so many people seem to be beginning to argue over them (consciously or not) fills me with an odd feeling of hope, in that it suggests that we may be entering, maybe without yet really recognizing it, into one of those periods of true philosophical flourishing that has so often accompanied other periods of conflict and upheaval in history.