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The Conservative Panopticon
by Aditya Prathap
We have the most intelligent readers at Postliberal Order. Some of the most avid and interesting ones are college students who often tell us that our work regularly dominates many of their own political conversations with peers on campus. For this reason, as a new academic year begins, we are delighted to introduce an essay sent to us by one such reader, Mr. Aditya Prathap, a junior at Stanford University who is the Chief Whip of the Girard Society, the conservative debating society at Stanford, as well as president of the Veritas Forum and Stanford Chapter president of the Thomistic Institute. We’re proud to publish Mr. Prathap as a hopeful generational bellwether.
An intellectual civil war that has long loomed in the background of conservative political thought has finally come to the forefront.
On one side, the proponents of classical liberalism vigorously defend individualism, limited government, free market, and other doctrines that have long been considered necessary and sufficient for ordered liberty. The “conservative” aspect of this comes in the right-liberal’s espousal of socially conservative views on abortion, transgenderism, etc. On the other side, those weary of liberalism’s perceived failures have gathered under the banner of postliberalism, advocating instead for a common-good approach to politics that focuses less on individual civil liberties and more on the very nature of liberty.
The means of actualizing this political vision, many postliberals argue, is the intervention of the administrative state into the social and economic realm in order to create conditions conducive to the common good, making it harder to pursue vice, and easier to pursue virtue. This entails a reconsideration of the individual “freedoms” often used to prevent restrictions on harmful or false public expression, such as freedom of speech, academia, or religion. To the dismay of right-liberals, this vision of a postliberal society has been blazing trails in academia and public culture, winning territory in the minds and hearts of young conservatives across the West—and it shows no signs of slowing any time soon.
Yet the vast majority of self-identifying “conservative” Americans still espouse right-liberal principles. In its 2021 “American values” survey, the Public Religion Research Institute—a nonpartisan research organization—compiled data on the variety of cultural and political views held by Americans. In response to a question asking whether support for individual liberty, respect for American political institutions, and acceptance of religious pluralism are required to be a “true American,” the affirmative was offered by 98, 96, and 92 percent of Republicans respectively. Meanwhile, Tuft’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement has found similarly liberal views amongst young Republicans. For example, around 41 percent of the youth who voted for Trump did so on the basis of “jobs and economy.” While Trump’s economic policy platform includes some postliberal themes, his policies on deregulation and tax cuts were staunchly liberal, and this reflects a broader problem: the Republican party—for the most part—has not signed on to the postliberal project.
This stubborn fealty to liberalism displayed by many on the right is a curious phenomenon—especially considering that the liberal order seems to have failed to uphold social conservatism. A gloss of the current situation reveals a dire future. Freedom of speech, religion, and press—rather than encouraging dialogue oriented toward the truth—has blurred the concept of “truth” itself. In the vast marketplace of ideas, the notion that one worldview is true and another false is seen as philosophically reductive or restrictive upon one’s freedom of conscience. Pledges toward small government and free market values have relegated the prospect of single-income families to the realm of fantasy. Fair price, condemnation of usury, or virtually any other principle traditionally considered necessary for a just, flourishing society have been disregarded as financially disastrous. Beyond the metrics of ideology and economy, one may find several more examples of concerning trends. In the end, even if conservatives disagree on the extent of modern society’s decline, there is no shortage of evidence that it is in decline.
One would have expected the right-liberals to have abandoned ship by now for something more promising and ambitious than the slow progressive burn of the status quo. Postliberalism offers that alternative, one girded by millennia of rich political philosophy and religious tradition. And yet, many right-liberals have responded to the postliberal vision with a peculiar derision. Dialogue between the two groups usually dissolves in the same way. The right-liberal is scandalized by any laudatory mention of the “administrative state,” or is shocked at any skepticism toward individual liberty as an absolute political good. Basic postliberal categories about political order send the right-liberal into fits of rage over authoritarianism and tyranny, while accusations of utopian idealism fall unfailing and unthinkingly from their lips. Before long, the right-liberal is rallying charges against the postliberalist project as “impossible in the real world,” “dangerous if ever actually implemented,” or—in a truly vitriolic turn—perhaps even “un-American.”
Indeed, every vocal postliberal has heard this critique, and every vocal right-liberal has posited something of the sort before. In the space of a few short years, we have come to see the predictable pantomime response play out. But there is a source to this pattern of instinctive incredulity. The habitual and uniform response to the postliberal worldview is emblematic of right-liberalism’s most powerful weapon—one that is more effective than any metaphysical argument, appeal to tradition, or rhetorical flourish. This weapon is, by nature, elusive and subtle; it decisively destroys any temptation toward integralist sentiment and banishes any doubt regarding the institutional structure of the status quo. It is a weapon of psychology: more precisely, it is a mindset that, with the speed and force of instinct, translates conceptions of the integralist vision to images of “authoritarianism,” “utopianism,” and other disquieting or laughable notions. This weapon is the conservative panopticon. Allow me to explain.
Readers will recall that it is Michel Foucault who most effectively outlined the concept of psychological panopticism. To be clear, Foucault is no paragon of virtue, nor can we commend his philosophy as wisdom. However, his analysis of “panopticism” offers an important account of how ideas are regulated within the individual’s psyche.
In Discipline and Punish, Foucault recalls the penitentiary model of English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, the liberal progenitor of classical utilitarianism, who designed this model in order to maximize efficiency of resources used to operate prisons. Bentham theorizes a prison in which prisoners, housed in cells lined up side-by-side around multiple circular floors, can be watched by guards behind a wall. This wall, however, inhibits the prisoners from seeing the guards. Consequently, Bentham contends, even if there is no guard present, the prisoners will begin to police their own behavior out of fear that a guard may be present. Foucault uses this model as an analogy for the psychological apparatus of the modern disciplinary State, wherein man has internalized certain self-regulatory norms out of fear of the possible judgment of society. For a more light-hearted example, almost everyone washes their hands after using the restroom. A significant portion of these regular hand-washers, however, would not appeal to hygiene as the explicit reason for their action. Sure, this is most likely a reason, but the sense of shame that results from not having washed one’s hands is also a prominent reason. Interestingly, this self-regulating shame arises even when one may be certain that no one is watching. Foucault would describe this as an example of the internalized panoptic psychology of the modern world, where power is not wielded solely by the State but also in social relation.
Now, one may easily accept this analysis as an ethical dictum, repudiate all forms of self-regulation, and board the Foucauldian train hurtling toward the abyss of libertinism and debauchery. The twenty-first century, still reeling from the residual effects of the sexual revolution, is evidence that such a pursuit will only lead to despair and self-destruction. Nonetheless, Foucault’s analysis is not entirely useless. Returning to the subject at hand, the right-liberal “policing” of postliberalism reveals itself as panoptic in essence. Why is the State’s increased involvement in public affairs instinctively seen as inherently authoritarian? Why is a more technocratic form of rule instinctively perceived as inherently despotic? Why are the immense benefits and intrinsic safeguards of such models of governance rarely taken into account? It is as if the modern liberal retains a sense of internalized shame and discomfort toward power and authority, as if these concepts are tinted with intrinsically negative valences in the psyche of the individual. In the grand scheme of the conservative panopticon, the modern right-liberal regulates himself against integralist temptations via conflation of “illiberalism” and “authoritarianism.”
Who are the guards sustaining this self-regulating, panoptic political psychology? They are none other than the ghosts of the founders who live on today in America’s inherited liberal order. Fear of contravening the American patrimony has instigated Americans to internalize the early Republic’s modus vivendi: insistence on the right to self-determination, ideological and religious pluralism, and separation of powers are exemplary of the limitation on power and authority cherished by the founders. As with prisoners subconsciously trained into moral self-policing, right-liberals have developed an ideological gag reflex against the means of America’s salvation.
The immediate rejoinder to this critique is, of course, some reference to Hitler, Stalin, or Mussolini. The right-liberal might argue that his aversion to the integralist project is grounded not in psychological self-affirmation but in history, in the reality that employing political power in the culture wars opens the floodgates to potentially despicable and destructive leaders. And yet this invocation is itself a functioning of the panopticon. Examples of Cyrus, Ashoka, Marcus Aurelius, Constantine, Justinian, Charlemagne, Louis IX, Peter I, Frederick II, Lincoln, and others are swept under the rug in the debate over the question of sovereignty. These men were certainly not perfect, but they are counterexamples to the predominant narrative that power may only be exercised unto the destruction of society. Instead, with its looming projection of twentieth century fascism, the conservative panopticon burns a false image of sovereignty into the minds of men, redirecting their gaze only to its failures and away from its successes. The result is a conservative establishment that rejects illiberal ideas primarily on the basis of a self-imposed distaste rather than deliberate cost-benefit analysis. This is not to say, of course, that abuses of state power should be ignored in the debate over the merits of postliberalism. On the contrary, it is the historical myopia of the liberal gentry that ought to be discarded.
In the meanwhile, progressives—free from the strictures of a pantopic political philosophy—have unabashedly pursued political power with evangelistic zeal. For centuries, right-liberals have championed “political prudence” and “legislative temperance” in order to justify their aversion toward using the state to influence culture. Too much government involvement might, they argue, engender resentment amongst the people by unduly limiting the liberty necessary for a happy populus. Moreover, government is simply inept: the welfare state, for example, has completely failed to lift millions of Americans out of poverty and has instead made them dependent upon taxpayer-funded handouts. In a word, the state is an ineffective instrument whose overreach would undermine the well-being of the people. And yet, over the past century, progressives have managed to use the bureaucracy, the legislature, and the judiciary to shift cultural norms—without the ramifications predicted by right-liberals. The reevaluation of foreign policy along lines of progressive social ideology; the loosening of immigration restrictions through Congress; landmark decisions like Griswold v. Texas, Obergefell v. Hodges, and, until recently, Roe v. Wade. Contrary to the cautionary tales of conservative liberals, the intervention of the State in these cultural and moral matters has been neither ineffective nor has it introduced widespread popular instability. Rather, progressive values have been steadily gathering more influence and the people have adapted to these political norms as pupils to a teacher. Progressives have written the handbook and demonstrated it to be efficacious; it would be foolish for conservatives to burn it on the basis of a false “temperance.”
Moreover, “conservatives” must wake up to see that they simply cannot afford to abandon the state and retreat into red states, little platoons, and gated communities. The political reality is that progressivism now wields power and influence over every level of society: against the scorched-earth policy of the Left, the “conservative” canard of “grassroots cultural revival” stands no chance without a comparable political counterweight. The right-liberal can “stand athwart” yelling stop all they want. The Left advances by securing power. Their libraries host drag queen story hours, their schools transgender ideology, and their churches preach relativistic theologies which turn love in upon itself. And this is because they dare to rule, and conservatives do not.
G. K. Chesterton once wrote, “War is not the best way of settling differences; it is the only way of preventing their being settled for you.” Unless right-liberals enter the battlefield of political power and exercise the State unto the proliferation of virtue, the war for the American conscience will be settled on the wrong side by the wrong people—quicker than conservatives could shout “But that’s not what the Founders wanted!”
Yet this much should be obvious. So what has prevented American conservatives from putting up a fight? What keeps them returning to the status quo ante? Why have we not yet abandoned our pacifying libertarianism? The rationale cannot be political prudence, for virtue can do no evil. Neither is it political deliberation, for reason can promote no falsehood.
I’ve come to think that the culprit behind the conservative reticence toward new “illiberal” ideas is none other than the psychological policing-role conservatives have accepted within the collapsing liberal order—what I’ve called the political panopticon.
The solution is to break out of the role. Break out of the guardhouse of the right-liberal panopticon. Break out of the habits that cause the conservative to mindlessly repeat accusations of “authoritarianism” and “utopianism” at every postliberal turn of phrase. We need a new path, uniting under a common banner: one of a strong State, a common good politics, and an ambitious political imagination.
The only way forward is to begin from scratch, to scrutinize liberal presuppositions regarding power with thoroughness and probity. Only through this process will the conservative’s eyes be opened to the sheer contingency of institutional order, to the preponderance of watershed men in political history who have exercised authority over eras of indifference and vice. Only by escaping the panopticon will conservatives rediscover that it doesn’t have to be this way.