“In a different world where the culture war never happened, I might have seen myself as their ally in some areas.”
here is a certain sector of the public discourse whose members do not necessarily agree ideologically on every aspect but who share a few distinct characteristics. The members of this group include individuals, organizations, and publications. Among the most salient facts that loosely unifies them is that the members of the group all self-identify as small-l liberals. However, their critics—most prominently those on the Left—tend to view them as reactionaries or, at least, functioning as such. At face value, these two propositions seem contradictory, and, of course, they vehemently deny being reactionaries, while their critics scoff at the idea of their being liberals. However, I believe that there is a sense in which both are true. The question we have to ask, then, is: What kind of liberals—or what kind of reactionaries—are they? It should be clear by now to which institutions and people I am referring. It includes, of course, people like Jordan Peterson, Sam Harris, and the Weinstein brothers, along with publications such as the popular online magazine Quillette. At one point, someone like YouTube content creator Sargon of Akkad might have been included, though he seems to have fallen into relative obscurity lately.
Four out of the five individuals I mentioned are among the most prominent members of the so-called Intellectual Dark Web (IDW), but it would be a mistake to read this as simply another critique of the IDW. I believe there are enough of those, as well as very good ones. Sargon of Akkad, for example, rose to prominence much earlier than the IDW became identified as a somewhat cohesive group of public intellectuals. Today, some of its members are still putting out content, but others have much more clearly occupied that space. The best recent example is perhaps James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose, with the publication of their book Cynical Theories. Others yet, like Quillette, have maintained a steady presence in the public discourse. So, this is not a critique of specific people or institutions but, rather, of a particular ideology or mode of thinking. Importantly, it is one that is now squarely part of the mainstream, despite what many of its adherents might claim. And it exists at the intersection of politics, academia, and Twitter.
Even if it is a critique of a mode of thinking rather than of individuals, the best place to start is perhaps with the way people and institutions describe themselves. For the sake of clarity and simplicity, I will not try to discuss how sincere any of these positions really are. Small-l liberalism, in a broad sense, can include different, specific political positions ranging from the center-left to the center-right, so these self-identifications will reflect that. Quillette, for example, bills itself as “a platform for free thought” that “respect[s] ideas, even dangerous ones.” The most charitable interpretation of this is that the publication adheres to John Stuart Mill’s principle of the free marketplace of ideas. The thought is that all ideas should be openly and vigorously discussed—perhaps the bad ones even more so—and the marketplace will ensure that only the best ones prevail. In this sense, it is the most purely liberal position applied to discourse. Bo Winegard, a frequent contributor to Quillette has variously described himself as a liberal and a conservative, which, in the sense of the word “liberalism” that I am using here, is not at all contradictory. More generally, he advocates “science, discourse, and the conservation of the values of the West.” To use one last Quillette-related example, Colin Wright, its managing editor, self-identifies as part of the liberal left. This trend extends to many others. One article by Daniel Miessler looked at the self-reported positions of various members of the core IDW and found that, by a large margin, they favor the political orientation that would generally be described as liberal or left-wing, including on issues such as healthcare, immigration, gay marriage, and wealth inequality.
Despite all of this, their critics continue to describe them as right-wing reactionaries, something of which they are acutely aware. In the introduction to Cynical Theories, Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay write:
“This book, then, ultimately seeks to present a philosophically liberal critique of Social Justice scholarship and activism and argues that this scholarship-activism does not further social justice and equality aims. There are some scholars within the fields we critique who will be derisive of this and insist that we are really reactionary right-wingers opposed to studies into societal injustice experienced by marginalized people. This view of our motivations will not be able to survive an honest reading of our book.”
Now, there are many people and institutions who also fit into this broad liberal tent, even ones who are fiercely critical of the contemporary left. Yet they do not arouse the same kind of suspicion from the Left. Libertarians—many of them at least—are a perfect example. It is no secret that when it comes to economic policy, libertarians and the Left could not be further apart. Yet, discussions among leftists and libertarians tend to focus on the specific areas in which they disagree rather than on some prima facie intractable difference, as evidenced, for example, by a recent conversation between professor Ben Burgis and libertarian comedian Dave Smith—or by a 2017 Jacobin article which describes this phenomenon. So, what gives? What is it about these liberals in particular that elicits this reaction? Many of them have been accused of promoting scientific racism, which, if true, would certainly warrant accusation of being reactionaries. However, if this were true, it could be the whole story in any case. Even if some of these accusations have evidence to back them up, there are many among this group who have not—to my knowledge—even engaged with topics of science and race. Racism is not a charge that one could meaningfully level against, for example, Jordan Peterson. As Conrad Hamilton writes in Myth and Mayhem: A Leftist Critique of Jordan Peterson, Peterson does not seem even to think of race as a meaningful biological category. That is not to say that Peterson is the only one, but the fact that he is among those most often viewed as reactionaries—despite barely ever discussing race—shows that race cannot be the whole story. As another example, Cynical Theories, for all its harsh dismissal of Critical Race Theory, does not make any suggestion about race being an important category separating humans and, instead, just makes a fairly standard defense of classically liberal organizing principles.
One can find some issues on which their positions could be described as reactionary, such as Peterson’s views on gender roles, for example. However, I think it is challenging to find one reactionary position (or set of positions) that are common to all of them, and I believe the reason for this is that there are not any. Instead, what unifies them is a particular outlook about the political. One might call them Schmittian Liberals, for the 20th century German political philosopher and jurist Carl Schmitt. To be clear, it is true that Schmitt was perhaps the chief legal architect of Nazi Germany, but I am decidedly not saying that they are Nazis or fascists. They are, after all Schmittian Liberals, not simply Schmittians. Both aspects are important. Yet, as I explain what I mean by this, I think it should become clear why many on the Left feel that “reactionary” is an accurate description of their politics. In many ways, this phenomenon is analogous to what Matt McManus has called “postmodern conservatives.” Yet, there are important differences. On a surface level, the former are not conservatives, which is significant. They also support many of the policies that postmodern conservatives oppose like free trade and internationalism. One of the defining characteristics of postmodern conservatives is skepticism of rationality and truth, relying instead on more affect-based modes of reasoning. The opposite is the case for what I have called Schmittian Liberals.
Ultimately, it is perfectly possible to find a political friend in someone seen as morally evil, as long as there is a common enemy.
What makes them Schmittian is that one can almost perfectly map their political practice (in their role as public figures) to the theory that Carl Schmitt laid out in his classic 1932 book The Concept of the Political. Before going any further, then, a brief summary of the argument is in order. In this book, Schmitt attempts to define what the domain of politics is in the same way that one might think of the domain of the moral as the distinction between good and evil, or the distinction between beautiful and ugly as the domain of aesthetics. The political, he argues, must be based on a different dichotomy that is conceptually independent from and cannot be reduced to other dichotomies. Politics, he says, is essentially war or combat. The relevant dichotomy, then, is that of friend and enemy. However, there are important precisions. It is crucial for Schmitt that nothing that cannot be framed in terms of actual combat is political. He explicitly criticizes what he sees as a liberal attempt to reduce politics to competition, arguing that competitors are not enemies. This leaves much of what we usually call politics outside of the concept of the political according to Schmitt, which, given his definition, fits naturally in the context of international politics, where friends and enemies are much more easily designated. Inside a single State, everyone would—more or less—qualify as a political friend. That is not to say politics cannot happen inside a State, and one obvious example that Schmitt uses is civil wars. But, for instance, a traditional European political system with two dominant parties—one social democratic, one Christian democrat—in which arguments are over the proper scope of the welfare state and whether same sex marriage should be allowed can hardly be reframed as a possible civil war. Finally, Schmitt reminds us that—while it may be easy and politically useful to frame the enemy as ugly, evil, or both—these are all conceptually independent. Ultimately, it is perfectly possible to find a political friend in someone seen as morally evil, as long as there is a common enemy.
Regardless of whether any of the people that I am describing as such have been directly influenced by Schmitt—or even read him—it should not be hard to see why their worldview can be so accurately mapped onto this theory. One common theme among these public figures is the invocation of the West, or Western Civilization, as a coherent unit that shares certain liberal values but which is in danger of being lost beyond recognition. This is not—in itself—particularly close to Schmitt. The idea of a decline of the West has been explored by many thinkers, like Oswald Spengler in his 1918 monograph The Decline of the West. But, unlike Spengler’s idea of an inevitable decline, the West here is being deliberately assailed by an enemy bent on destroying it. Whether it is Critical Race Theory, postmodern neo-Marxists, or the radical left, the enemy is hell-bent on dismantling Western values.
This, of course, is consistent with Schmitt’s friend/enemy distinction, but the parallels go much deeper. Recall that, for Schmitt, most of what we recognize as politics cannot be meaningfully called that. The competition between conservative liberals and left-leaning liberals for public office is a process that involves only political friends. The Schmittian concept of the political is not different from more standard ones solely because it takes the friend/enemy distinction as its primary unit of analysis. Conceptually, it operates on an entirely different level—one that subsumes what we understand as politics as an apolitical exercise between friends. Under this light, the apparent ideological diversity of these groups and individuals makes much more sense. They are ideologically diverse under a standard conception of the political, but this is not the level on which they are operating. One of the selling points of the IDW used to be that its members came from many different political perspectives. Ben Shapiro is a mainstream American religious conservative, while Sam Harris is a liberal atheist. If they could have a civil conversation, could others not do the same? But, of course, they are operating on a different level. Their apparent differences are a bit of background noise because they are not even political on the framework in which they are working. The only politics that count are those that pit them against the enemy. Any small-l liberal—no matter how different—becomes a friend, thereby making any difference entirely apolitical. Incidentally, in this context, the fact that many of them self-describe as apolitical makes more sense. What most of us consider political is completely removed from the proper realm of politics in the Schmittian Liberal framework.
Alliances also make sense in this context. It is important to recall that Schmitt is clear about the fact that friends and enemies cannot be reduced to moral good and evil. It is entirely possible to have a political friend that one considers morally evil, or any other negative qualifier. This is exactly what we see. In 2018, Colin Wright wrote a scathing denunciation of what he considered to be a new kind of evolution denialism coming from the Left. Now, as the battle lines become increasingly defined, many in this community have taken an increasingly different stance towards organized religion and even religious fundamentalism. In August, Wright was happy to put away his concern for evolution denialism to have a long conversation with Christopher Rufo about violence in Portland. Rufo is a member of the Discovery Institute which, among other questionable positions, supports the theory of intelligent design. Similarly, James Lindsay—whose first book was a defense of atheism—has now partnered with Christian nationalist Michael O’Fallon to discuss the dangers of Critical Race theory, which both see as the enemy. O’Fallon is the founder of the organization Sovereign Nations, which has a hardline pro-religious position. He is even one of the owners of Lindsay’s newest project New Discourses.
None of this is meant to argue that liberals should not be having these conversations. The reason I am pointing out these curious alliances is to contrast how they approach the stated enemy. In what can only be described as one of the ultimate ironies, those whom I have called Schmittian Liberals have now turned to the idea of redefining Critical Race Theory, Critical Social Justice, or “wokeness” as a religion. This is not merely an epistemological move simply to argue for a different understanding of particular concepts; it has deep political implications. In the United States, for example, given that the separation of the State and religion is enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution, it would fall to the same category of ideas like creationism with respect to public education. The contrast, then, is stark: The religious right is embraced, while the approach to the enemy is to give it a designation that will turn the power of the State against it. All of this, of course, is perfectly in line with Schmitt’s theory. In one passage from The Concept of the Political, he writes that “the enemy is easily treated as being evil and ugly, because every distinction, most of all the political, as the strongest and most intense of the distinctions and categorizations, draws upon other distinctions for support.” This accurately describes what is happening with the attempt to redefine “wokeness” as a religion. The political distinction is drawing on another one, religious vs. secular, for support.
It is simply that the German philosopher’s theory perfectly describes the practices and a significant portion of the ideology of this particular kind of liberal.
So, are Schmittian Liberals really liberal? In one sense, yes. All of them support policies that exist somewhere in the center-left to center-right range of the political spectrum, and which can be accurately called small-l liberalism. In a different world where the culture war never happened, I might have seen myself as their ally in some areas. In fact, my first essay in an English-language outlet was a defense of free speech absolutism published in Quillette, and I stand by it. However, it is crucial to keep in mind that their politics operate within two separate conceptual frameworks. The more mundane one, in which they are liberals, becomes secondary to the almost existential one in which there is an actual political conflict in Schmittian terms. This sentiment is perfectly captured by Pluckrose and Lindsay when they write the following:
“[T]he liberalism and modernity at the heart of Western civilization are at great risk on the level of the ideas that sustain them. The precise nature of this threat is complicated, as it arises from at least two overwhelming pressures, one revolutionary and the other reactionary, that are waging war with each other over which illiberal direction our societies should be dragged.”
They go on to argue that these reactionary forces are claiming the mantle of the defense of liberalism and the West to further their cause. Now, this is accurate, as it can readily be seen in President Donald Trump’s speech during his 2017 visit to Poland, with its references to the free nations of the West. That speech was written by his adviser Stephen Miller, one of the most nationalistic and right-leaning figures in the administration. Yet, it is clear that—from their point of view—this is a much less pressing threat, given the differences in treatment towards either side.
As I wrote before, the claim is not that these groups and individuals are deliberately following Schmitt. It is simply that the German philosopher’s theory perfectly describes the practices and a significant portion of the ideology of this particular kind of liberal. And, it bears repeating: There is a very real sense in which they can be described as liberals. Yet, I fail to see how anyone can be surprised that people whose ideology is in important ways consistent with Carl Schmitt’s theories are also sometimes described as reactionaries. Now, I do think the term “reactionary” is not entirely accurate in this case. Schmitt, of course, could probably be described as such, but the Schmittian aspect of these liberals’ political philosophy is not the entirety of it, even if it often takes the center stage. I do think a term like “reactionary” ought to be reserved for those that can be wholly described by it, such as those in the tradition of the French counterrevolutionary thinker Joseph de Maistre. With all of that being said, however, it is also crucial to understand that not every liberal’s ideology is described exclusively by liberalism. This is not a claim about the consistency of their beliefs—one could even be, for example, a liberal monarchist like many 19th century liberals—instead, the point is to figure out what kinds of ideologies are liberals holding on to, other than liberalism, and what are their practical consequences. Here, it seems that a sizable portion of them have adopted a rather bellicose posture, which, whether we like it or not, places us all along these metaphorical battle lines. It should be incumbent upon the rest of us to put forward a less warlike view of the political. While that happens, however, we should at least be aware of who is on which side.
Néstor de Buen holds an M.A. in social sciences from The University of Chicago. He has previously written at Quillette.