Resistance Is Futile

Late last year, Adrian Vermeule published at The Postliberal Order substack titled, “‘It Can’t Happen’; Or, the Poverty of Political Imagination,” an article restating many of the themes he has developed over the past few years. Aside from the restatements, he adds a critique of what he calls the “futility trope” used by conservative critics of postliberalism. The futility trope, as he defines it, is “some proposal or movement for political or legal transformation ‘can’t work,’ ‘can’t happen,’ or is ‘unrealistic.’” The trope is, he argues, a common one among “right-liberals” who disparage the postliberal project. In his view, such a view is typical of mainstream conservatives who oppose progressive social change in the short term but ultimately seek accommodation within it in the medium- and long-term. Only postliberals and their allies in National Conservatism and other populist movements have the spine to resist such social change and, more importantly, the imagination to envision an alternative.

Vermeule argues that rapid leftwing social change illustrates that the progressives benefit from discarding the “futility trope” in favor of pushing their politics into the mainstream, and they do this despite being a minority in America. In fact, their success is largely because they are a minority. Toward the end of his essay, he references the work of Mancur Olson in the classic text The Logic of Collective Action: Public Good and the Theory of Groups. Olson argued that minority groups have the advantage of intensity over apathetic majorities to impose their will. According to Vermeule, the Left has exploited these conditions in America in a way the Right has not. His examples are revealing:

And it is an argument that betrays a sheer poverty of political imagination. In my own lifetime, the hard-headed realists are precisely the people who have been most repeatedly and flagrantly wrong about the rigidity of current political arrangements, coalitions and constraints; they have been systematically blind to the fluidity of politics. The realists never imagined that the Soviet Union could fall, until it did. They were confident that same-sex marriage would never become the law of the land, while today the Supreme Court, having gone far beyond same-sex marriage, reads federal law to protect rights of gender identity. They were absolutely certain that Donald Trump could never be elected, until he was. They knew, with the confidence of a man demonstrating a solution in mathematics, that Hispanics would always and overwhelmingly vote Democratic. They derided critical race theory as the bizarre ideology of a few radical faculty and students, which would never survive contact with the “real world,” yet in 2021 we all inhabit Derrick Bell’s mental universe.

The first example is that of the fall of the Soviet Union, one anticipated by many neoconservatives who mobilized behind Ronald Reagan, whose “right-liberalism” Vermeule avoids mentioning here. Of course, the neo-conservatives were originally few in number and spent much time writing for smaller, prestige publications that the Postliberal Order somewhat imitates. The example, then, cuts both ways.

The second example is same-sex marriage, which Vermeule also considers a minority position imposed on an apathetic majority. Yet, he also notes that Americans had sufficiently mobilized to amend state constitutions to prevent its legalization, meaning that the majorities in several states were not apathetic but were simply outnumbered on the Supreme Court when the ruling was handed down. This example does not quite work.

The other examples are just as ill-fitting: Donald Trump did win in 2016, but the outcome was very close. He also lost in 2020 by a margin larger than he won in 2016, although perhaps because of his handling of COVID-19. Neither outcome seems relevant to Vermeule’s connection to Olson, and the Trump victory, though surprising to some, was one of the only two possible outcomes of the 2016 election. Hispanics are trending Republican (as Reagan predicted when he said “Latinos are Republican; they just don’t know it yet”) and seem, at present, unwilling to be folded into “Latinx” categories of the Left—but this cuts against the idea that focused minorities win. The small number of “Latinx” activists are losing despite being small in number. Finally, it is not at all clear that we are living in Derrick Bell’s universe, as the mobilization against progressive curriculum and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) human resource practices have only just begun.

Again, if all Vermeule wanted to point out was that strange things happen in politics, then he would be right, if banal. Rather, Vermeule wants to insist that driven minorities can instigate these “strange” things. However, for the minorities to instigate them, they have to imagine them first.

Vermeule’s Literary Politics

Vermeule insists that “right-liberal” conservatives are inept at confronting or even complicit with progressive social change. Postliberals, however, will fight back. But to secure the motivated minority that he needs to instigate political and social change, he must first envision what that change might look like. He invites his readers to imagine a world where the conservatives are the elites. To that end, he appeals to their imaginations, much like the titular character of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971). In the film, Wonka sings the song “Pure Imagination” to the children as they enter his factory:

There is no life I know
To compare with pure imagination
Living there, you’ll be free
If you truly wish to be

If you want to view paradise
Simply look around and view it
Anything you want to, do it
Want to change the world?
There’s nothing to it

Later in the film, Wonka shows the children the lickable wallpaper, noting that the “Schnozberries taste like schnozberries,” to which the irascible Veruca Salt retorts, “Schnozberry? Who has ever heard of a schnozberry?” Wonka responds by quoting the opening lines from Arthur O’Shaughnessy’s 1873 poem “Ode”: “We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.” For our purposes, the poem is apt, as O’Shaughnessy’s poem is an ode to poets, the aforementioned music makers and dreamers of dreams. He describes these figures the way that Vermeule seems to understand himself. O’Shaughnessy says:

A breath of our inspiration
Is the life of each generation;
    A wondrous thing of our dreaming
    Unearthly, impossible seeming —
The soldier, the king, and the peasant
    Are working together in one,
Till our dream shall become their present,
    And their work in the world be done.

They had no vision amazing
Of the goodly house they are raising;
    They had no divine foreshowing
    Of the land to which they are going:
But on one man’s soul it hath broken,
    A light that doth not depart;
And his look, or a word he hath spoken,
    Wrought flame in another man’s heart.

O’Shaughnessy sees poets as responsible for envisioning a world that lesser figures cannot imagine but implement all the same. The poets, like the postliberals, are:

Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
    And sitting by desolate streams; —
World-losers and world-forsakers,
    On whom the pale moon gleams:
Yet we are the movers and shakers
    Of the world for ever, it seems.

It is in his vision that Vermeule provides the “goodly house” that the solider, king, and peasant raise, and they credit themselves and not the poets who first dreamed of that house and inspired them to build it. Hence, the postliberals, like O’Shaugnessy’s poets, live in the obscurity as “world-losers and world-forsakers.” Being the small minority on whose souls “a light that doth not depart” has broken, they entreat young conservatives to envision with them “a wondrous thing of our dreaming unearthly, impossible seeming.”

In other words, Vermeule is less concerned with whether he gets the facts exactly right as much as he is in telling a story. His story is meant to grip the imaginations of the despondent conservative would-be elite and give them the language they need for a counter-revolution. The Postliberal Order does not need a majority to win but a sufficiently mobilized minority of elites who share his vision for reversing the liberal revolution. Hence, when critics argue that postliberals espouse an ideology that no American majority would accept, they miss the point. For Vermeule, the majority does not matter. The majority is apathetic. They will accept whatever vision an inspired elite minority will impose on them. All one needs is the king to command the soldier, and the peasant will follow. “Ode” concludes:

For we are afar with the dawning
    And the suns that are not yet high,
And out of the infinite morning
    Intrepid you hear us cry —
How, spite of your human scorning,
    Once more God’s future draws nigh,
And already goes forth the warning
    That ye of the past must die.

Great hail! we cry to the comers
    From the dazzling unknown shore;
Bring us hither your sun and your summers;
    And renew our world as of yore;
You shall teach us your song’s new numbers,
    And things that we dreamed not before:
Yea, in spite of a dreamer who slumbers,
    And a singer who sings no more.

“Ye of the past” fits well with how Vermeule and other postliberals describe the dying “liberal order.” Indeed, the liberal order “must die.” Vermeule, moreover, seeks to redeploy the old medieval Catholic order at the heart of his neo-integralism to “renew the world as of yore.” The Postliberal Order is the work of pure imagination, but imagination is where all political projects begin. Vermeule, the dreamer who slumbers, will teach conservatives “things that we dreamed not before,” or his Empire of Our Lady Guadalupe.

Olson Reconsidered

Yet facts are stubborn things. It is hard to see how this story can hold for long, given that politics is more than a literary venture. When Mancur Olson spoke of minority groups, he was referring to the “free rider problem” in which large numbers of people will not organize for social change because they hope others will make the changes for them. Minority groups are different because they have three things that motivate them: individual benefits, small group size, and selective incentives. Vermeule is right that postliberals are few in number, which means they satisfy the second criterion.

Individual benefits refer to policy changes that benefit the group, and selective incentives are goods that organizations deliver only to members. Postliberals advocate for reforms like Sabbath laws and family subsidies that many would enjoy, but most are unwilling to organize to pass, especially at the federal level where Vermeule devotes his attention. It seems unclear how these individual benefits defy the free rider problem. How will postliberals confer selective incentives? For example, belonging to progressive social organizations often means entry into elite circles or social activist positions at major institutions. Do the postliberals promise these? If so, where are they, and how will they deliver the benefits? Will Vermeule wrest control of admission to Harvard Law School to guarantee HLS will accept only postliberal applicants? Talk about pure imagination!

The important consideration is that postliberals are not seeking to develop a majority position but a strong enough minority one within American conservatism to seize its institutions and subsequently influence future generations. It is early days now to determine whether they will succeed, but that seems to be the gambit. For that reason, Vermeule is right to mock the “futility trope” as fundamentally misguided, but his appeal to music makers and dreamers who dream seems, at the moment, to lack the individual benefits and selective incentives for anyone to join him—at least, for now.