The Post-Liberal Reading List

Some answers to the question: what the hell are these people talking about?

One of the hottest areas of debate, especially in conservative circles, is the fate of liberalism. Whenever I offer some critique of liberalism, invariably, I get a handful of comments saying: "Hey, surely you're not talking about classical liberalism?" And disappointingly, I typically have to respond that, yes, that's precisely what I'm talking about. 

Many on the anti-woke center and right call themselves "classical liberals"— people who believe in freedom, socially liberal, fiscally conservative. Classical liberalism has become somewhat of a metaphoric Schelling point for people who don't want to be defined by simply being anti-woke and feel like adding a sprinkling of John Stuart Mill carries more intellectual weight. 

This spirit here is: "No, we're the real liberals!" and to that, I can say - yes, you're right, but so are they. We're all liberals now. 

The main challenge for people in the classical liberal space is saving liberalism from a host of attacks: critical theory, bloody neo-Marxists, incessant encroachments of various flavors of illiberalism.

It's an endless battle with a worthy foe, the immortal Hydra of liberalism itself. 

But on the dissident right and left, in the post-liberal and so-called post-left spheres, there is growing chatter about the nature of liberalism itself: 

  • What is liberalism? 

  • What are its principles, what are its aims? 

  • Who are the liberals? 

  • What is liberalism's conception of humanity, of culture, of community? 

  • Who is the political agent under liberalism?

  • Do our current problems stem from a misapplication of liberalism, a misunderstanding of it, or an excess of it? 

  • Have we simply not been liberalizing hard enough to stem the encroachment of illiberalism? 

The answers to these questions aren't easy to deduce from our current cultural context, mostly because liberalism is a fait accompli. It is the water we swim in, the implicit, unwritten pre-preface to almost any work of political theory you can get your hands on. 

Add to this that the thinkers who have looked closely at liberalism run the gamut between left and right and that most of these books are old and out of fashion (and print). 

So, I've put together a reading list for the post-liberal curious: 

*you can find many of these as epubs if you look closely, and many are on Audible as well.  

James Burnham

One of the most prescient (you'll hear this again with a few others on this list) political philosophers of the last century, Burnham shifted from staunch Trotskyist to squarely on the Right after being mugged by reality.  

The two books that best cover Burnham's critique of liberalism are:

The Machiavellians (1943) - a sobering look at the realities of power and the patterns of elite power accumulation and how ideology offers both cover and legitimacy. Looks at the work of Machiavelli, Gaetano Mosca, Georges Sorel, Robert Michels, and Vilfredo Pareto. A good intro into politics beyond the surface level of "revealed preferences", so to say. 

The Suicide of the West (1964) - Here, Burnham chronicles the decline and fall of the West in analogy to other empires and traces it back to the hazy but all-encompassing ideology of American liberalism. A book with an almost apocalyptic vibe but a searing dissection of the liberal syndrome. 

Additionally, another early Burnham classic is The Managerial Revolution (1941), a study of the end of capitalism and its replacement by a multi-layered, unaccountable bureaucratic oligarchy - simply, a rule-by-managers.

Christopher Lasch

Known for his mix of social conservatism with a left-leaning critique of capitalism and his shoutouts on Red Scare. Lasch is also prescient, by now pretty much a prophet. 

The books that best cover Lasch's critique of liberalism are:

The Culture of Narcissism (1979): A look at the consequences of the liberating influence of the '60s revolutions, the dissolution of the family, and the establishment of the "self-creating self" as the basic unit of society. 

The True and Only Heaven (1991): A searing critique of one of the main assumptions of the liberal mind - progress. Lasch looks at counter-progressive ideas starting at the Enlightenment up to the present and offers one of the best condensations of the arguments, from Rousseau to Carlyle.

The Revolt of the Elites (1994): An ode to common standards, and the society-wide corrosive effect of a rootless, detached global elite class. 

René Girard

Reading and understanding the work of René Girard gives a death blow to the concept of "live and let live." Mimetic theory offers a necessary lens on the connectedness and interdependence of human beings, on desire, violence, and other immutable aspects of the human experience and how we resolve them to be able to live peacefully together.

Probably the most comprehensive summation of Girard’s many ideas comes in Things Hidden since the Foundation of The World (1987)

My friend Geoff Schulenberger, a Girard scholar and teacher of a new course on his work, recommends: 

Deceit, Desire, and the Novel (1976) as a useful condensation of his position on liberalism.

Battling to the End (2009) his work on Carl von Clausewitz, is a dark meditation focusing on the escalation of violence, power, and how modern politics has lost its grip over the forces of mimetic escalation. 

Patrick Deneen 

Patrick Deneen is a professor of political science at Notre Dame and one of the fiercest contemporary critics of liberalism in all its forms. 

Why Liberalism Failed (2018) - probably the most comprehensive view on the post-liberal arguments from both the market and social dimension. If you want a crash course in the present case for post-liberalism, this is probably the best single book to read on this list. 

Theodore Dalrymple

Theodore Dalrymple, a pseudonym used by Anthony Daniels, a physician, psychiatrist, and connoisseur of many social strata, having worked in prisons across the UK, in the East End of London and Subsaharan Africa. 

With extraordinary wit, his analysis focuses on the effects of social liberalism and economic welfarism on the most vulnerable in society. Thanks to Mary Harrington for reminding me of his work and how well he fits into this list.  

Life at the Bottom: The Worldview that Makes the Underclass (2003)

This book is probably one of the most startling accounts of the mentalities that prevail in the lower strata of society, their many traps, and their inherent logic. There is a method to the madness and Dalrymple lays it out better than anyone.

Not With a Bang But a Whimper: The Politics and Culture of Decline (2010)

Dalrymple maps the decline of the British social fabric under the banner of more and more democracy and freedom, delivering neither.

Ivan Illich

Another one of Geoff's recommendations that I just started reading this year, Ivan Illich is a chronicler of the sensitive minutiae of what it means to be human and what it means to be together. His critique of liberalism is emergent from his vision of humans as "convivial" beings as opposed to the self-created individuals mandated by both the free market and social liberalism. 

His trilogy: 

Limits to Medicine - Medical Nemesis: The Expropriation of Wealth (1982)

Deschooling Society (2000)

Tools for Conviviality (2001)

John Gray

I’m a big fan of John Gray’s work and have read pretty much everything he’s put out, including his book on Feline Philosophy, which has nothing to do with liberalism but is delightful reading if you’re a cat lover like me.

John Gray’s perspective on the failure of liberalism can probably be summed up as its failure to see man as he is and the fact that liberalism is a continuation of Christianity by other means. He’s the quintessential philosopher of the “tragic view,” of man as a fallen animal looking to the stars.

The essential thought of John Gray on this subject can be found in:

Straw Dogs (2007)

Black Mass (2008)

The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths (2014)

Other essential thinkers on this subject

*may add to this in time

Ryszard Legutko - The Demon in Democracy

I’ll lean on this great review by Charles Haywood to explain why this book is so important in understanding the logic of liberal democracy and its “coercion to freedom.”

Alasdair MacIntyre - After Virtue

Charles at the Worthy House has reviewed this book as well, great intro to the concepts in the book.

Larry Siedentop - Inventing the Individual

Tom Holland - Dominion

Peter Hitchens - The Abolition of Britain 

Wendell Berry - Essays & Nonfiction

Roger Scruton - Conservatism (& all other works) 

Feel free to suggest more books on the subject in the comments, I’m keen to build out this list with as many great books as possible.