PILKINGTON: Towards a Postliberal Political Economy
“The philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” — Karl Marx, Theses on Feuerbach
Postliberalism today is a movement with plenty of momentum. It has started to develop a language and mode of analysis, but it seems to lack some of the core analytical components needed to turn it into the sort of analytical framework that could be used to both think about society in a coherent way and, potentially, change it. Here we will provide some of the first steps in that direction.
Postliberal Political Economy Contra Marxism and Liberalism
We might approach the basic problem of a postliberal political economy in Marxian terms. In Marxian political economy society is thought of as having two layers, the economic ‘base’ and the cultural ‘superstructure’. For classical Marxists, the economic base is the important layer. Everything that matters happens at the level of the base; the base is where causes reside. The cultural superstructure, on the other hand, is the realm of appearances. Classical Marxism teaches that although it may appear to the naked eye that cultural formations – from religious organisation to family structure – have an autonomy of their own, this is simply an illusion. All the superstructure is determined by the base.
Take the example of religion. For Marxists, religion is completely devoid of any meaningful content in and of itself. The effects of religion can only be judged by its behavioural and ideological impact. What then, is religion for Marxists? Marx said that it is the “opiate of the masses”. What he was implying is that it is an ideological smokescreen designed to distract people from the economic questions that matter.
For Marxists, then, religion is a cultural outgrowth of a power structure that needs to defend itself. It runs something like this: Throughout history there has been a ruling class and a subordinate class. The subordinate class is always larger and therefore potentially more powerful than the ruling class. For this reason, the ruling class, in any place and at any time, need to form an ideological cover for their rule. Marxists contend that this ideological cover often takes the form of a religion that justifies the order of things.
Here we see clearly that for Marxists religion, which is part of the cultural superstructure, is used to justify the underlying power relations – which are mostly economic in nature and therefore integrated into the base. For example, the Medieval Church would tell peasants that they should hand over their tithes to their feudal lords and not revolt because this arrangement is predetermined by the Great Chain of Being, itself grounded in Neoplatonic theology. While a Neoplatonist might argue that the Great Chain of Being has metaphysical content, the Marxist would dismiss this and say that the metaphysics is merely deployed to cover up the real economic power relations at work.
Liberal conservatives have, in the past half century at least, played along with this basic distinction. Liberal conservatives operate on the assumption, however, that everything of interest happens in the cultural superstructure. For them, the economic base is neutral. It only serves to increase material wealth. Since it is neutral it should largely be left alone or, if the liberal conservative is in favour of limited intervention, it should be steered by state policy – but only to make it function better to produce material wealth. Liberal conservatives believe that the cultural superstructure is autonomous of the economic base. So, they focus on trying to convince people of their rightness of their ideas. Liberal conservatives leave the economy to the economy and focus their efforts on cultural reform.
What would a correct understanding of postliberal political economy have to say about the Marxian and liberal approaches? Simply that they are both wrong. A postliberal political economy would recognise that the economic base and the cultural superstructure affect each other. One cannot be understood without understanding the other. Any Marxist attempt to improve society and culture by simply reorganising the economy is doomed to fail. But likewise, any attempt by liberal conservatives to improve society and culture by simply convincing people of the rightness of their ideas will also fail. A postliberal political economy does not say “either/or” but rather “both/and”. Once again, this is more easily discussed with reference to concrete examples.1
Family Structure in the Long-Run
Perhaps the most phenomenal social transformations this past century have been the changes we have seen to the family structure. What has caused these changes? Liberal conservatives often attribute these changes to moral breakdown, and occasionally allow for a small role to be played by perverse incentives that they say are built into welfare systems. Yet, it seems just as likely that moral breakdown is being driven by changes in family structure and not vice versa. Study after study shows that family breakdown causes social pathology. So, how do we discern the chicken from the egg?
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If we cast off our ideological prejudices, however, two factors stand out in the changes we have seen in family formation. The first is the extreme decline in birth rates, the second is the entry of women into the modern workforce. Both are related. Take the entry of women into the modern workforce first. Note we say modern here. This is an extremely important distinction. Throughout most of human history women have worked, whether in agriculture, in early homestead manufacturing, or in 19th century factories. Yet, the modern workplace is very different in that it is designed to separate work and family life completely. The modern workplace is inherently atomistic. It tries to separate workers from their other relationships. This allows those who control the workplace to squeeze a maximum amount of labour from their workers.
Does this absorption of women into the modern atomised workplace have a tangible impact on family life? How could it not? How could such a change not lead to, for example, more children in nurseries, more latchkey kids, more pressure for easy divorce? It is obvious to any thinking person that the economic base, in this case, is having an enormous impact on the cultural superstructure. Capitalism grows as its workforce grows. If the economic machine can get its hands on more labour, it does not care what the cultural effects of this are.
Declining birth rates are obviously related to this. As family time is deprioritised, especially by women, less children are born. And there are other causes here that come from the economic base that can easily be highlighted too. Consider that in the past children were considered by parents to be an asset. Having a large family was economically useful for parents. Firstly, because the children could be used as a source of labour – whether on the farm or in the factory or up a Victorian chimney. Secondly, because the children could look after parents as they aged and, in that sense, having a large family was like contributing to a pension.
Today, on the other hand, having children is considered by most to be a liability. Liberal conservatives will jump on this and again point to the supposedly perverse incentives introduced by, say, the universal pension system. But this is only part of the cause. For the most part today, having children is just expensive. Potential parents need to contemplate buying a larger home, putting savings away for college, and for childcare if they are both cogs in the modern economic machine, and so on. It is hard to get away from the fact that a modern intensive production-consumption economy turns children from an asset into a liability. Once again, the economic base is having a huge impact on the cultural superstructure.
This, in turn, introduces interesting and contradictory dynamics. In my essay Capitalism’s Overlooked Contradiction: Wealth and Demographic Decline, I highlight that economic development drives lower fertility rates.2 Lower fertility rates, in turn, lead to a dearth of new workers and a shrinking labour force. This shrinking labour force then gives rise to economic stagnation and dysfunction. Capitalism eats itself. The economic base impacts the cultural superstructure which in turn impacts the economic base. This sort of analysis shows just how powerful postliberal political economy can be. By looking at the interaction between the economic base and cultural superstructure, fascinating dynamics can be highlighted that allow us to better understand the economy and society.
These sorts of analyses also suggest room for reform. For instance, the solution to the growth-fertility contradiction is for the state to promote family formation through economic incentives. But consider for a moment what sort of a cultural impact this would have. Imagine if a successful family policy was implemented tomorrow and fertility rates and family formation increased dramatically. Would this have an impact on culture? Studies suggest it would – and common sense would agree. For example, studies show that strong families tend to vote more conservative than atomised individuals. This shows the power of postliberal political economy to not just analyse society and suggest reforms, but also to formulate viable political party strategy.3 It may not be too much of an exaggeration to say, given how integrated personal and economic life are in today’s intensive consumption-production economy, the only way to engage in meaningful reforms is to tackle them first at an economic level.
Dating Apps in the Short-Run
The above analysis of family dynamics is both compelling and promising. But it remains somewhat abstract. It is, as the economists would say, a macro analysis. But this should not lead us to think that postliberal political economy is a purely macro discipline. It also allows us to analyse micro-level phenomena. Let us approach, for example, the issue of modern dating. This is a micro-level phenomenon that obviously feeds into poor family formation and low birth rates.
Here we will not try to form a general theory of modern dating. It is a highly complex phenomenon. But let us just consider one interesting development: the existence of dating apps. These have given rise, together with widespread access to online pornography, to pernicious trends in the dating market that are contributing to rapidly falling fertility rates amongst millennials and Gen-Zers.
We start by asking what is the economic rationale of a modern dating app? The advertising tells us that the goal of the app is to promote happiness by helping the consumer find a stable, happy relationship. This contrasts with some of the seedier apps that promise mere sexual intrigue. Yet, in practice, the apps advertising relationship formation for the most part collapse into sexual intrigue. Why? To understand we simply need to look at the underlying economic incentives.
Dating app companies make money by having people use their app, whether through advertising revenue or by subscriptions. It is not hard to draw the conclusion from this that the dating app companies are incentivised to not have users find a stable relationship but rather to keep them on the app. If the app delivers its stated goal, the owners of the app lose not one but two customers. It is therefore in the interest of the owners of the app to design the app in such a way that it is addictive and ensures frustration on the part of the consumer. And so, it is of no surprise that all dating apps ultimately collapse into delivering sexual intrigue no matter what they promise. Those that try to deliver on what they promise will simply be weeded out by market competition because they will be bad business models.
Now consider the base-superstructure relationship here. Let’s break it down. Would people use these awful contraptions if they had better morals; that is, would the apps be viable if the cultural superstructure were more robust? No. But are the apps nevertheless vastly degrading the cultural superstructure? Are they making the people who use them jaded, washed out, depressed, unable to form families? And in this, are they making these people more focused on their careers instead of on their personal family lives? Quite obviously so. The economic base of the app is having a large impact on the cultural superstructure which in turn is having an impact on the economic base.
Does such an analysis suggest reforms? Once again, yes. By damaging the capacity of people to form families, have children and increase the labour force, dating apps are generating not only costs on our society but are proving extremely taxing on our economy. In theory if we could figure out the impact that dating apps were having on the fertility rate, we could estimate the economic activity being lost through these parasitical gadgets; the number would likely be in the trillions. These apps are leaching on the actual economy, degrading its capacity to grow by helping suppress birth rates in search of short-term profits for their owners. Why would anyone interested in growing the economy allow these apps to exist? It would be like a factory owner placing an opium den inside his factory, convincing himself that he is being a savvy businessman because he will make more revenue from the sale of opium without considering for a moment the impact it will have on the productivity of his factory. This myopia of the overall picture is what leads liberal conservatives into such a rut. They live in a world where these relationships cannot be understood, studied and remedied; postliberals, on the other hand, live in a world where they can.
Can wokeness be explained by economic causality?
Recently, the philosopher Edward Feser wrote a fascinating essay entitled In Defense of the Culture War.4 In the piece Feser highlights that some postliberals have become convinced that the culture war is a distraction from what they call ‘real economic issues’. Feser takes issue with this and tries to argue that the culture war remains important because an ordered culture and society is necessary for a functioning economy. Feser is correct, of course, but his analysis would be much more powerful if he considered utilising the tools of postliberal political economy. It should not be hard for creative and thoughtful people to highlight many of the connections between culture and the economy in our society today.
In fact, there are reasons to believe that wokeness itself can partly be explained with reference to economic dynamics. Consider the two examples that we have discussed above: family breakdown and dating apps. We know from studies, for example, that family breakdown is strongly associated with mental illness and that mental illness is strongly associated with woke views. Is it really a stretch, therefore, to link wokeness to family breakdown? And does this not fit perfectly with the archetypal woke subject racked with teen angst over, say, his or her parents’ divorce? Or take dating apps. Do these apps not point users in the direction of experimental sexual lifestyles, such as so-called ‘polyamory’? And do these lifestyle experiments not likely feed back into the proliferation of woke ideology?
Beyond this wokeness is so obviously a consumerist phenomenon. It is premised on the promise that people can choose their identities as they would choose a consumer good. Adopting a woke identity is effectively the same process as making a purchase from Amazon. A person clicks through a few webpages, finds something that is superficially appealing and says: “this is me”. What is more, books are already being written on the economic forces behind wokeism. Vivek Ramaswamy’s book Woke Inc: Inside Corporate America’s Social Justice Scam makes a compelling case that wokeism is effectively an ideology deployed by corporations to justify their activities. Ramaswamy is an unwitting Marxist, effectively applying the Marxist critique of religion to wokeism. But where the Marxist critiques are vague and unconvincing, Ramaswamy marshals impressive amounts of evidence that wokeism is, in large part, an attempt to subordinate the radical political forces that broke out at the time of Occupy Wall Street to corporate power. Wokesters are not leftist mischief-makers; rather they are the capitalist consumer subjects par excellence, subordinating not just their desires to the consumer market but their very being.
What Feser’s work and similar work could potentially provide is the telos for an integrated postliberal mode of governance. One of the enormous failings of the postwar left has been, after the collapse of enthusiasm for communism, to articulate a coherent vision for society. The reason for this is that the left has effectively no theory of morality or even taste and therefore no theory of what constitutes the good life and what constitutes the bad. In short, the failure of the postwar left has been its inability to articulate a positive view for society. Initially the postwar left coasted on the residues of Jewish and Christian morality, but in the past few decades it has collapsed into nihilism and nonsense.5 Postliberals, on the other hand, have ready access to the natural law tradition which allows them to discuss what goods should be promoted in a truly postliberal society and how these goods should be balanced relative to one another. For example, to what extent should the economy have to suffer to benefit the family.
The potential for a postliberal political economy is enormous. Studies are already being generated, week after week, on many of these dynamics as people become concerned with what increasingly looks like the breakdown of our societies. But we lack the language to fit the pieces together and are still stuck debating whether the “economy” or the “culture war” is more important. In reality, they are two sides of the same coin.
Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation).” Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses by Louis Althusser 1969-70, www.marxists.org/reference/archive/althusser/1970/ideology.htm.
Harman, Chris. “Base and Superstructure.” Chris Harman: Base and Superstructure (Summer 1986), www.marxists.org/archive/harman/1986/xx/base-super.html.
Hall, Stuart. “Re-Thinking the ‘Base-and-Superstructure’ Metaphor.” Communist University of London, pages.mtu.edu/~jdslack/readings/CSReadings/Hall_Rethinking.
Later variations of Marxism, generally called ‘cultural Marxism’, have a similarly multicausal view of the base and superstructure as postliberalism. But they have never been sure what to do with it. This, in large part, has led the contemporary New Left into the ditch of identity politics. Unable to articulate an integrated vision for society and the economy, they have fallen back on nihilistic cultural critique.
Pilkington, Philip. “Capitalism’s Overlooked Contradiction: Wealth and Demographic Decline.” American Affairs Journal, 20 Nov. 2022, americanaffairsjournal.org/2022/11/capitalisms-overlooked-contradiction-wealth-and-demographic-decline/.
See: Pilkington, Philip. “Demographics Are the GOP’s Destiny—If They Embrace It.” Newsweek, 2 Aug. 2021, www.newsweek.com/demographics-are-gops-destinyif-they-embrace-it-opinion-1613168.
Feser, Edward. “In Defense of Culture War,” 20 June 2023, postliberalorder.substack.com/p/in-defense-of-culture-war.
See: “A Catholic Economics”, John Paul Maynard Keynes, The Lamp, May 26th, 2021.