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Meet the New Elites, Same as the Old Elites

Regime Change: Toward a Postliberal Future

By Patrick J. Deneen

Publisher: Sentinel

Pages: 288

Price: $30

Review Author: John C. Médaille

John C. Médaille is a retired businessman who has been teaching at the University of Dallas for the past 18 years. His primary course deals with Catholic social teaching and is required for the business degree. He is the author of three books: The Vocation of Business: Social Justice in the Marketplace (Continuum, 2008), Toward a Truly Free Market: A Distributist Perspective (ISI Books, 2011), and, with Thomas Storck, Theology: Mythos or Logos? A Dialogue on Faith, Reason, and History (Angelico Press, 2020).

Every age has a dominant profession, one more responsible than all others for the sum of things. In some ages it is the priest, in others the warrior, and in still others the scholar. But our age is an age of commerce, a globalized commerce at that, and in this age the businessman and the bureaucrat are the determinative professions.

Along with the dominant professions comes a dominant ideology (for want of a better term), and all disputes take place within the confines of that ideology. In our age, that ideology is liberalism, and our disputes are not so much between liberals and conservatives as between “left-liberals” and “right-liberals.” Or, as Patrick J. Deneen in Regime Change puts it, “Conservatism thus appears to be nothing other than a commitment to a slower rate of change — albeit largely in the social domain — while at the same time, insisting upon conditions of accelerating change in the economic domain.”

Those who excel in the determinative professions, either by the excellence of their practice or their dexterity in supplying the necessary theoretical and moral justifications, become the “elite,” and wealth, power, and influence tend to flow in their direction. They form an elite precisely because they perform the functions that make society what it is. And precisely because our age is one of globalized commerce, our elites are divorced from any particular place while at the same time trying to make every place a copy of their place, a place that is likely to resemble nothing so much as an American suburb.

Now, since the elites are always a combination of practitioners and theorizers, and since the “debates” take place within an ideological unity, the question arises about how real regime change can come about. Does it come from the practitioners, from the rationalizers, or from the outside through some sort of insurgency, perhaps one occasioned by natural, military, or economic disasters? Deneen addressed this topic in his previous book, Why Liberalism Failed (2018), and seemed to put practitioners first. “What we need today are practices fostered in local settings,” he wrote, “focused on the creation of new and viable cultures, economics grounded in virtuosity within households, and the creation of civic polis life. Not a better theory, but better practices.” In that work, Deneen concluded with a call for a new “postliberal” practice rooted in Rod Dreher’s “Benedict option.”

But in his new work, Regime Change, Deneen concentrates on the theorizers and seems to favor the view that before we can change the system, we must first have a new elite, a new “aristocracy,” but one aligned with the people (an “aristopopulism”) and committed to using “Machiavellian means to achieve Aristotelian ends” (boldface italics in the original).

Rage Against the (Existing) Elites

Deneen starts with a critique of our ruling elites rooted largely in James Burnham’s classic The Managerial Revolution: What Is Happening in the World (1941). Burnham wrote that the separation of ownership and control necessitates a class of professional managers. Deneen identifies three attributes of this elite class. The first is a “studied placelessness,” which supports globalism; here, elites’ support of immigration stems largely from a desire for cheap labor.

The second attribute of the elite “managerial meritocracy” is its “assumption that the past is largely irrelevant,” and culture can be repackaged as just another commodity — like the “ethnic foods” aisle in the local branch of the globalized supermarket chain.

The third feature of this elite is its “near-complete disassociation…from the lower and working classes.” In place of real contact with working people, it proposes “a fig leaf of diversity” and “faux egalitarianism.” It exhibits “a near-complete lack of reflection upon its relationship to the lower and working classes.” The managerial elites, of course, do not see it this way. The left-liberals favor a redistribution of wealth, and the right-liberals believe a “free market” will make just distributions if we would just leave it alone.

Toward a Common Good Conservatism

Deneen is in search of a “common good conservatism,” and he provides useful insights on the division of modern theories into categories: classical liberals (John Locke), progressive liberals (John Stuart Mill), Marxists (you know who), and conservatives (Edmund Burke and Benjamin Disraeli.) The first three he identifies as varieties of progressivism; only the last category is truly conservative. The “conservatism” of Locke and Mill, he writes, “cannot, in fact, lead to commitments nor efforts to conserve anything substantive.” What unites the forms of liberalism and Marxism has been “a belief in self-making, demanding a social order that allowed the greatest possible freedom — even liberation — from unchosen commitments.” Deneen continues:

This imperative required a highly mobile social order, allowing the “industrious and rational” to pursue and realize their talents wherever they were most in demand and rewarded…. Cultural constraints — whether upon individual or economic liberty — were to be largely eviscerated. Religion must necessarily recede as a domain of constraint…instead becoming a form of personal belief and thereby losing any broadly social or political status as a governing authority that could impose “interdicts.”

In this, Deneen gives us the perfect expression of modernist individualism, which, in spite of being the content of much that goes by the name of conservatism, is actually liberal in the most extreme sense, so much so that “liberalism” and “conservatism” are both forms of liberationist theology. The great irony is that actual Liberation Theology is a lot more communal and conservative and, therefore, a lot more liberating than most of its conservative or liberal rivals.

The major problem with this analysis is that each one of these regimes (even individualism) defines itself in terms of the “common good.” Indeed, there is no other way for any regime, any political or economic system, to define itself. The question, however, is, “Where does this common good lie?” There are, obviously, competing notions of the common good. Yet Deneen’s text leaves us with no definition of this critical term.

Rather than a definition, Deneen claims that the common good is embodied in “the wisdom of the people,” which he calls “common sense,” and is realized through “reviving the mixed constitution.” Concerning the first, Deneen finds a vast reservoir of traditional knowledge and collective memory, which he plays off against modern “expertise.” This is an important point, especially in an age when the statesman, in forming public policy, is admonished to “listen to the science,” a phrase that has an almost religious significance for many people. I would respond that a statesman should never “listen to the science”; rather, he should listen to the sciences. The difference is crucial. In the first place, there is no single “science” that can pronounce on any public-policy issue because modern science advances precisely by fragmenting the world into its various parts. But reality is not fragmented; it is unitive. And “expertise” itself often lacks any basis to challenge its own presumptions, even as it refuses any challenges from outside itself.

Expertise is “conservative” in the worst sense of the term; nobody tends to be as stuck in the past as the “expert.” So, in formulating public policy on, say, a viral pandemic, the statesman should, of course, consult virologists and epidemiologists. But he must also consult economists, educators, sociologists, manufacturers, supply-chain experts, the public-health authorities charged with implementing the policy, and, of course, the general public that must live with (or under) the policy. The result will be a policy that accounts for all and pleases none. As Deneen points out, “Expertise thus rests on disintegration,” but solutions require integration.

This is a significant point, but it is not a definition of “the wisdom of the people.” We only know that it is not a division of scientific expertise. There is a real problem in leaving this point in the air. “The wisdom of the people” was a romantic reaction to the rise of capitalism and was true in some ways and false in others. It is true that humanity depends on community, and any community that wants to endure will instill a certain wisdom — call it “common sense” — in its members. But that common sense is not always reliable, and the community itself is always changing and experiencing new disturbances. So, it was once “common sense” that, for example, blacks were inferior, immigrants were lazy, and Catholics were unreliable agents of the papacy (indeed, for some, these are eternal verities). Perhaps it is useful to look at another culture that is struggling with change.

In Iran, there is controversy over the status of women and their use of the hijab. The hijab is certainly within the Persian and Muslim tradition, and it is certainly not my place to tell them how to run their society. But neither is it my place to deny the validity of the struggle on the grounds that it challenges “tradition.” These kinds of struggles are always occurring, in every community, and an appeal to “the wisdom of the people” does not necessarily resolve the questions. What is needed is both a principle of continuity and a principle of change. For Deneen, that combination is given by “the mixed constitution.”

The Mixed Constitution

This “mixed constitution” is made to bear the burden of a conservative order that, Deneen says, “rests in a deference to the ‘many’” but has a “vital and essential role played by elites, who are charged particularly as the trustees, defenders, and protectors of culture, tradition, and a longstanding way of life.” So Deneen is certainly not “anti-elitist”; he just wants a new elite. Indeed, as we will see later, the elites in this new regime are “liberated” in a way that actual elites would hesitate to admit, even when they actually act that way.

Deneen begins with the “mixed constitution” of antiquity, starting with Aristotle. But the connections to the Stagirite are slim. In fact, in his discussion of the “mixed constitution,” Deneen makes only two references to Aristotle’s Politics, both to the same passage (1294b). Deneen views this mixed constitution as a combination of an intellectual elite, one that will “tutor” the rest, and the working class. But for Aristotle, it is simply government by a combination of those with property and those without it. He is very specific about what he means: “Constitutional government is, to put it simply, a mixture of oligarchy and democracy.” From oligarchy he takes the election of officers, and from democracy the lack of any property qualifications for voting or holding office. Aristotle’s model here is the constitution of Sparta, where the poor and rich were educated in the same way, received the same food in the common messes, and wore the same clothing. And Aristotle (the original distributist) makes his desired ideal state explicit; it is an ideal that has to do with the distribution of property:

Great then is the good fortune of a state in which the citizens have a moderate and sufficient property; for where some possess too much, and the others nothing, there may arise an extreme democracy, or a pure oligarchy; or a tyranny may grow out of either extreme…but it is not so likely to arise out of the middle constitutions and those akin to them.

Indeed, Aristotle goes so far as to support the exiling of those who are too rich because they constitute a danger to the polity.

Deneen then moves from the ancient mixed constitution to the modern one, and here he turns mainly to the work of Disraeli, downplaying somewhat the role of Burke. In this, he does a real service to conservatism, since Burke “did not, in fact, describe himself as a conservative, or even develop a political philosophy explicitly under the title of conservatism.” Burke was a social conservative but an economic liberal, yet he has stood at the head of the canon of American conservatism at least since Russell Kirk’s classic The Conservative Mind (1953). But Kirk, as brilliant as he was, never got his own joke, one that has become emblematic of the schizophrenia at the heart of American conservatism: the rooting of conservatism in radical liberalism.

But Disraeli “got it.” He knew that the heart of the problem was a heartless economic system, one that had resulted in an England of “two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws.”

Deneen provides an excellent analysis of Disraeli’s work, which is devoted to making the Tory Party “explicitly committed to policy reforms that were beneficial and supportive of the working classes,” a program some have called “Tory Socialism.” Based on his analysis, Deneen proposes a new elite, one that will be, for some reason, united with the working class. So the chapter on a “mixed constitution” ends not with suggestions for such a constitution, or any hint as to what that constitution might look like, but with a call for a new elite, a “better aristocracy brought about by a muscular populism, and then, in turn, an elevation of the people by a better aristocracy. What is needed is, for want of a better term, ‘aristopopulism.’”

Machiavellian Aristopopulism

Deneen would like to see the rise of a new elite, “which can only arise with the support of insistent political power exerted by an increasingly multiracial, multiethnic working-class party.” He identifies Donald Trump as the leader of this rising party, despite his being a “deeply flawed narcissist” who appealed to “intuitions of the populace,” but only because its members are “untutored and ill-led.” To address this problem, Deneen says we need a “self-conscious aristoi,” which will “tutor” this political movement. The dominant economic and cultural elite must be replaced by another elite that holds to a “common good conservatism,” an elite formed by “a conservative ethos.”

How this new elite is to be chosen Deneen leaves obscure. Apparently, they will be disciplined by the working-class movement they are tutoring. Deneen’s major means for achieving this are a series of reforms, including enlarging Congress to 6,000 members, a representation of “estates” (important institutions and professions) in Congress, appointing by political authorities of “activist trustees” to university boards, curtailing the power of corporations, limiting immigration, enforcing a “moral media,” and using caucuses rather than party primaries. Many of these are good ideas and deserve more attention than I can give them here. But will any of them lead to the emergence of this “new elite”? I don’t see how, and Deneen doesn’t explain it. All this could be passed off as just another exercise in academic idealism, interesting enough if not particularly practical in the form presented. Indeed, I wish the book had focused on these reforms, rather than their being just a brief interlude in a long text. But then Regime Change takes a dark turn.

A very dark turn, indeed.

Deneen insists that this new elite must use “Machiavellian means to achieve Aristotelian ends” (boldface italics in the original). And in case anyone doubts what he means by this, he quotes favorably this passage from Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince (1532):

If someone were to argue the methods employed were extralegal and almost bestial — the people in a mob shouting abuse at the senate, the senate responding in kind, mobs running through the streets, shops boarded up, the entire populace of Rome leaving the city — I would reply that such things frighten only those who read about them.

I detect a coded reference here to the January 6 riots, but I suspect Deneen excludes the Black Lives Matter demonstrations. But be that as it may, I can’t see this as anything but an ends-justify-the-means argument, an argument that is the end of everything conservatives want to conserve. Indeed, Machiavellianism cannot be conservative because, for Machiavelli, words do not have meanings; they have uses. And it makes little sense to spend so much time attacking the economic utilitarianism of Mill only to turn around and endorse the political utilitarianism of Machiavelli. But most importantly, once you set the rules of the game as Machiavellian, it turns out that any number can play, and they just might play it better than you can.

Deneen defends this use of low means in the name of noble ends, the ends of representing the “common good” of the people. The questions that must be asked are, “Has there ever been, in all human history, an aristocracy that did not claim to represent the interests of the people? Has there ever been a regime that did not claim to be working for the common good?” The denizens of Davos could make this claim and make it with some justice; it is an easy claim to make. And it is true that the people always retain the right of rebellion when they are denied any other means of resistance. But the endorsement of violence is more reminiscent of Maximilien Robespierre than of Disraeli, and it is more likely to lead to another Vendée than to a common-good conservatism.

The Mechanics of “Regime Change”

The biggest problem might be that Deneen writes an entire book about “regime change” without once recounting how any regime actually changes, and he calls for a “new elite” without once mentioning how these new elites get to become “the elite.” But this process is well known to history, and the path to power is always the same: the elite controls some resource upon which a particular culture depends, either a physical resource or an intellectual one. In an agricultural society, those who control the use of the land become the aristocracy. At first, they are close to the actual users of the land. But as the estates grow, and when the lord of the manor becomes the lord of many manors, he can no longer manage them personally, and the role of the manager increases. Likewise, as production shifts from the farm to the factory, management becomes an increasingly indispensable skill. When factories are gathered into immense, corporate collectives, the power of the managerial elites becomes immense. And when production becomes globalized, the management must also be global, placeless, and hence disconnected from the workers of any particular place, and their only interest in local politics will be utilitarian and — dare I say it? — Machiavellian.

The lesson of history is clear: You cannot change elites without changing the systems of property and production. This is only partially — and accidentally — an intellectual problem; at its core, it is an economic problem. Man is a material being, and he must eat before he does anything, and he must continue eating to continue doing it. Hence, the evolution of economic systems precedes the evolution of aristocratic systems. And it is always a case of evolution, not revolution, for even revolutions themselves are preceded by an evolution in the economic system. But this process of regime change is not addressed in a book entitled Regime Change.

What Deneen gives us is a “common good” that is not defined, a “mixed constitution” that is not outlined, and an aristocracy that is not confined. Indeed, rather than being confined, this new and refined elite is liberated to pursue its ends (which, we are assured, will really be “our” ends) through whatever means it deems necessary. This does not strike me as a promising political program. And in spite of some excellent analyses of the problem, Deneen’s solution does not strike me as “conservative” in any meaningful sense of the term. In the end, I suspect that “Machiavellian aristocratic populism” will be neither aristocratic nor popular, but it certainly will be Machiavellian.


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