Patrick Deneen’s new book, Regime Change, has elicited a host of takedowns. It has been called everything from theocratic to Marxist; it’s considered by some a revolutionary manifesto and by others a Caesarist manual.
Deneen doesn’t seem particularly concerned that his radical rhetoric renders his argument vulnerable to criticism; quite the opposite. The book’s overtly Marxist introduction—Deneen calls on an “elite cadre” of “class traitors” to “act on behalf of the broad working class” by “directing and elevating popular resentments”—seems intentionally designed to provoke critics. The same can be said of the book’s vague invocation of “Machiavellian means.”
Yet, understandably eager to rebuke Deneen’s rhetoric and reject his half-baked treatment of the American constitutional tradition, even sound and insightful critiques of Regime Change have largely failed to engage with the book on its own terms, and with its true purposes.
One of these purposes is a subtle but powerful assault on an intellectual foe that liberalism itself has struggled to vanquish: vitalism.
Others have ably explained the content and appeal of vitalism. Deriving from the thought of Nietzsche, vitalism elevates life and strength, celebrates individual excellence of spirit, and deplores the decadence and mediocrity of modern culture. It is obsessed with power, both physical and intellectual. Vitalism is unequivocally masculine. Its iconography bestows an almost erotic focus on the muscled, young, male body, and its adherents bemoan the supposed feminization of the West.
Vitalists follow Nietzsche in going back beyond Christianity to mine a classical tradition that commends not “the poor in spirit” (Matt. 5:3) but the aristoi, the best, who know themselves to be the best and glory in their greatness. Some go beyond classical antiquity: The most prominent vitalist guru is an internet figure known as Bronze Age Pervert (BAP), who penned a cult-favorite work called Bronze Age Mindset. Seething at the cabal of “bugmen” and matriarchs who endeavor to “bury beauty under a morass of ubiquitous ugliness and garbage,” BAP’s manifesto calls on “a few men,” unashamed Bronze Age heroes, to rise up and perform great deeds. For “[t]he best desire one thing above all, ever-flowing eternal fame among mortals.”
It makes sense that an ideology that worships youth and masculinity appeals to young men. Many ambitious young men in Washington (including a number of Trump staffers) are familiar with BAP. Boys around the world who lack a stable, healthy vision of manhood have gravitated toward other strains of vitalism, from Andrew Tate’s chauvinism to Curtis Yarvin’s calls for regime change led by an “American Caesar.”
Deneen, however, cannot be counted among the vitalists. Although acutely aware of the growing popularity of vitalism, he is passionately opposed to it. Among other examples, while speaking at an American Enterprise Institute event in April, he inveighed heavily against “pagan” and “Nietzschean” strains emerging on the right, citing BAP’s influence specifically.
This hostility may surprise some of Regime Change’s critics, who group Deneen and his integralist bedfellows in with the vitalists under the “Opponents of Liberalism” category. But the truth is that for many young men Deneen is appealing to, the “liberalism” debates are increasingly a sideshow. For them, classical liberalism is already dead. And while liberalism’s defenders spend the weekend at Bernie’s, propping up the corpse of our current regime, its critics—including the likes of BAP—are already vying to supplant it.
With that in mind, we should read Regime Change less as a refutation of a liberalism that Deneen and his followers already deem dead, and more as a replacement ideology. We should attempt to see beyond Deneen’s co-opting of the radical rhetoric that draws young men to vitalism in the first place and attempt to understand his deeper purposes.
Deneen’s central argument is that the American regime needs a new elite. What distinguishes our elite from “every previous elite” is its “near complete lack of reflection upon its relationship to the lower and working classes.” Deneen is aware of how elites go out of their way to “leverage privilege” or “be an ally”—he is a university professor, after all—but he dismisses those efforts as a futile attempt to sidestep the question of class:
This is not to say that there is a lack of stated commitment to the poor and downtrodden, which is a visible and vocal feature of the new elite. Rather . . . the conceit among today’s elite, promoted especially in its educational institutions, is that the only real answer to the division between the many and the few is effectively to make “the many” into “the few”—to equalize through the notional redistribution of managerial status to every human.
In other words, insofar as liberal elites seek the betterment of the working class, they are less interested in serving it than in erasing it altogether. At its most benign, this looks like left-wing activists promoting affirmative action or young libertarians repeating ad nauseum that “a rising tide lifts all boats.” At its worst, this mentality is reflected in the left’s promotion of abortion, especially for poor black people, or the right’s celebration of creative destruction.
These “partisans of the false divide,” as Deneen calls them, attempt to eliminate the natural tension between the elite and the people through an absorption of the “many” into the “few.” Vitalism, on the other hand, throws this tension out entirely. Instead of liberalism’s fusion of the two classes into one, vitalism separates the two classes to the point of speciation: The strong, the elite, the few are to be as gods, the weak, the common, the many as slavish subhumans.
Real “common-good conservatism,” Deneen argues, neither widens nor abrogates the divide between the two classes. Instead, it cultivates the tension between the classes, nurturing noblesse oblige among a “self-conscious aristoi.” Unlike liberals, these elites are aware of their status, and unlike vitalists, they feel obligated to the “many” and serve a purpose greater than themselves.
That purpose, Deneen makes clear, is “to secure the foundational goods that make possible human flourishing for ordinary people.” Or, more sharply, the elite should do more than offer the people mere freedom. For Deneen, our regime once accomplished this but no longer does. As he puts it, elites today “have provided” the people “‘the pursuit of happiness,’ but deprived them of happiness.”
Regime Change’s real claim is that our political order has failed to achieve even modest objectives and is thus already unstable. Regime change has already occurred. To substantiate this claim, Deneen leans on the example of John Winthrop’s Model of Christian Charity (1630), arguing that America’s original founding—for him, its Christian founding—understood people’s talents as “gifts bestowed to individuals so that they might in turn be contributions for the benefit of the whole community.” Today’s liberal elites invert this. Most contemporary understandings of the Declaration of Independence, Deneen claims, assert that “to secure our individual rights, we establish something common—our nation. Thus, that which is common (the nation), serves our differences (our rights).”
This inversion ends up reserving human flourishing for the elite, thus bizarrely echoing vitalism. Really, the only difference between vitalist and liberal elites under Deneen’s framework is that the former acknowledges its self-serving behavior and the latter does not. In opposition to this vision (which merely reprises the pagan worldview that Christianity is obsolete), Deneen looks to Winthrop, Martin Luther King Jr., and a “whole nonliberal tradition of public spiritedness and communal responsibility” that was “lauded by Tocqueville” and focused on “restraining the temptation of the high, mighty, and wealthy to unjustly and selfishly benefit from their gifts.”
Critics might respond that anyone in America may use their freedom to become an elite. But this only solidifies Deneen's deeper point: Making freedom the end of politics makes human flourishing a luxury good. The only alternative—being an elite dedicated to serving the people—means not merely maintaining freedom, but the more challenging (and indeed, to certain young people, the more intriguing) prospect of preserving an entire ecosystem that “is arranged as a kind of ‘public utility,’ with its stabilizing norms and order making a flourishing life not only possible, but likely, to the broad base of a social pyramid.”
His accusation, in other words, is not that our elite has become unvirtuous, but rather that it has monopolized the infrastructure for virtuous living; it has privatized our moral public utilities.
Regime Change is about how a society’s elite ought to conduct itself. Deneen’s answer: An elite must aspire to provide common goods—public moral and material utilities, such as prayer in public life and access to clean water—that make a virtuous life not just possible for an elite few, but probable for normal people.
This claim is serious and deserves engagement, not dismissal. To advance the discussion and win over the alienated young men that Deneen is courting (and whom our current elites are all too ready to abandon) scholars must move beyond stale reruns of the liberalism debates and tired restatements of vague principles. That means a rediscovery of the republican and, yes, Christian elements that inform the moral vision embedded in our Constitution, teaching young people what to do with their freedom. Without such a rediscovery, some of America’s future leaders may use their freedom to choose darker, more dangerous paths.
Howe Whitman III is an assistant editor at National Affairs.
Evan Myers is the editorial manager at The Heritage Foundation.
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