On Monday, I described some of the risks involved in focusing on “industrial policy” as the central feature of a post-neoliberal economy. Today, I want to discuss a very different vision for post-neoliberalism, one that may be less familiar to readers of this blog because it is been incubating among a small group of academics and thinkers on the right. This group, in essence, endorses a form of American theocracy – one that is explicitly committed to restoring the role of the patriarch, and that takes its theory of change from places like Hungary. It includes academics like Patrick Deneen, Adrian Vermeule, and Gladden Pappin, and journalists like Sohrab Ahmari.
This crowd has their own conferences and blogs and substacks, and as you start to listen and read, you’ll notice that their critiques of the market often sound like they were ripped from the pages of this blog. At a recent conference, for example, Ahmari argued that “the market isn’t some mystical, self-directing being, but a human institution subject, as all human institutions are, to power and political choice.” A few months ago, Deneen gave a talk to a packed room here at YLS, hosted by our Federalist Society, billed as a celebration of Vermeule’s common good constitutionalism. Its first half sounded uncannily like an LPE lecture, if it were dressed up in tweed and St. Augustine.
So then how does their critique differ from ours? To begin, they’re committed theocrats, whose views are sufficiently extreme that they sometimes admit that they’ll lose in any open and democratic struggle for political control. Just after the November election, curious about how this circle was metabolizing the victories of abortion rights in every state to which the question was put to a vote, I scanned their Twitter reactions. No surprise: there was general agreement that it showed the flaws in democracy itself, as well as the Supreme Court’s weak-kneed Dobbs decision. As one frequently shared blog post put it, “the will of the people regarding a putative good is not the decisive question. The common good is the common good notwithstanding the will of the people. And the essence of political life is to seek the common good.”
Anyone who has been to law school – or who just watched last term’s dumpster fire of a Supreme Court docket – can immediately see why these figures in the US are rallying around “common good constitutionalism.” If you don’t have popular will on your side, go for the judges. And if you do have the judges, why stop at overturning Roe? Why not go directly to protecting fetuses as persons, restricting trans healthcare, and banning gay marriage while you’re at it? Vermeule’s vastly unspecified conception of the common good seems designed primarily as a container for an extreme wing of Christian ethics, designed to support precisely such moves. And it certainly has a chance to succeed, given the slash-and-burn radicalism of todays’ Supreme Court majority.
Vermeule and his associates also see a robust administrative state as another avenue to advance their theocratic aims. Vermeule is notable among conservatives today for his broad defense of the administrative state – connected, not accidentally (here comes Hungary), to a priapic defense of the unilateral executive. There is an incipient policy vision here too. Gladden Pappin, for example, recently wrote a piece lavishing praise on an obscure Hungarian policy that he credited with dramatically boosting marriage rates and reversing what he called their “catastrophic population declines.” The program offers newly married Hungarian couples a variety of subsidies, including $30,000 toward home-ownership – with a few catches. The woman must be of birthing age, and the couple must produce three children in short order or face repayment penalties. Of course, only heterosexuals need apply. Hungary recently passed a constitutional amendment defining the family as “based on marriage and the parent-child relation” and declaring further – in the Constitution! – that “the mother is a woman, the father a man.”
Pappin is currently a visiting fellow living in Budapest, organizing conferences on the common good there. The group as a whole is enthralled with the current leadership in Hungary, and this suggests yet another point of divergence from our worldview: their distinctive, reactionary politics of care. They double down on what Fraser calls the “hidden abodes of production,” not overcoming neoliberal strictures so much as suspending them for a select few. The role of race, gender, and militarized borders and other canonical forms of exclusion are obvious here.
Hungary is irresistible to this crowd, I think, because it offers a compelling image of what a certain right-wing response to neoliberalism and its care crisis will look like: leverage state funding to support care, provided by women, presumably in the home – but only to those who are white enough, Christian enough, straight enough, to deserve it. The model appeals to the theocrats not only because it aligns with their model of patriarchal family life, but because Orban is seen as having figured out how to first win in a democracy and then take that democracy apart to retain power. His playbook sounds familiar to anyone watching the Republican Party as of late: he commandeered the courts, pushed through radical gerrymandering, attacked universities, and whipped up support by attacking LGBT people, “gender ideology,” Jews, and Muslims, while warning about “the great European population replacement program.”
Spin this all together in America, and you can see a very dark version of our future. Odds are that this axis of the right will have too little power in the Republican party to generate the full-throated and reactionary welfare state that they envision. But they might provide just enough political veneer to facilitate a power-grab by Republicans following Orban’s lead. Particularly if progressives continue to fail to articulate or prioritize a care agenda of their own. These new theocrats, of course, also have a disturbingly plausible path to dominance through the courts.
What does this mean for us in LPE? Obviously, attending to the looming reactionary power of the Supreme Court is all the more critical with this in view. But to return to a theme from my last post, it also shows the danger of a failure to learn the lessons that critical feminists and race scholars bring to the study of political economy. The new theocracy, no less than the new productivism, is going to insist on the joinder between the politics of race, gender, and class in America, precisely by demanding their separation. All of this is a call, too, to develop practices of reading these and other claimants to new, post-neoliberal paradigms, lest we see them clearly only when it is too late to stop them.