Three years ago, Harvard law professor Adrian Vermeule published “Integration from Within” — both a review of theorist Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed and a thorough condemnation of liberalism in its own right. Such post-liberal critiques are nothing new. What sets Integration from Within apart is its prescription — a radical, proactive response to liberalism’s decay.
To begin, Vermeule bucks the popular defensive solution: the strategy of isolation and rebuilding foremost advocated by Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option. Diagnosing liberalism as a fighting, evangelistic faith, Vermeule argues that such nostalgic rural communities ignore liberalism’s ever-expanding crusade, remaining under constant threat of destruction by the woke inquisition. Eventually, he warns, the liberal regime will kick down the farm door, too.
Instead, Vermeule calls for an offensive strategy — Integration from Within — the infiltration of liberalism’s powerful institutions by right-wing post-liberal agents. The goal is that, in Vermeule’s own words, “the vast bureaucracy created by liberalism … may, by the invisible hand of Providence, be turned to new ends, becoming the great instrument with which to restore a substantive politics of the good.”
Despite its slightly dated origins, the strategy remains of significant relevance today, serving as the popular blueprint for America’s burgeoning post-liberal right. Its sentiments have expanded beyond words and into tangible action — inspiring the formation of new nonprofits and contributing to the rise of a public cadre of post-liberal intellectuals. Bold in the face of increasing liberal hostility and aware of the futility of retreat, Vermeule’s proposal is certainly worth our consideration. Yet as more undertake this project, a certain danger must first be addressed, lest the strategy be doomed to failure.
The danger is this: despite its lofty intentions, the offensive strategy places primacy on the practical and only secondarily considers the speculative. This is to say its first inclination is simply to attain the object — control of the powerful institutions — while its intellectual foundations and motivations remain variable. In this way, any ambitious group can exercise Integration from Within for its ends — the 20th-century infiltration of American universities by the Marxist Frankfurt School serves as an overt example here.
Placing the practical above the speculative, however, is gravely disordered. As St. Thomas Aquinas states, “It is the speculative intellect which directs what it apprehends, not to operation, but to the consideration of truth.” One cannot act well without first knowing why and for what they act, for it is truth which properly informs and motivates human actions. Conversely, if the practical comes first, the act is no longer governed by the truth, but rather by the whims of the agent — leaving it easily manipulated and relativized. Such is how the offensive strategy can be both post-liberal remedy and also Marxist tactic for indoctrination. So long as the practical is primary, objective truth remains an accidental component.
This is not to say Vermeule himself is unaware of this fact. Understanding the importance of the speculative, he posits a unifying “why” for the strategy: a politics of common good. So too, he has recently commented on the necessity of a Catholic underpinning to the strategy, providing first principles from which to discern right action.
But Integration from Within is neither an individual sport nor a strategy meant to be spearheaded by intellectuals like Vermeule. Rather, it is a practical project performed by practical agents — Hill staffers, think-tank workers, and journalists — and it is by these agents that the danger most fully comes to bear. This is because the strategy’s offensive nature requires its agents to dwell for extended periods, even lifetimes, within the nucleus of American liberalism, constantly exposed to its evangelistic fervor. If one is to endure, he must also intimately participate in liberal culture — producing its fruits and conforming to its norms as he moves up the ranks.
As such, the strategy brings agents into full contact with the temptations of liberalism — sirens singing alluring songs of pleasure, sexual license, material gain, power, prestige, and social inclusion — beckoning the agent to direct the project to new, less-wholesome ends. As members of modern society, we all hear these calls to varying degrees, but to operate within the halls of liberalism is to sail one’s ship past the very center of the sirens’ lair.
The sirens’ calls will not always be overt: an invite to an exclusive dinner, a check from a “well-intentioned” donor, a casual illicit rendezvous, a desire for a new consumer product, a simple urge to remain silent. Nevertheless, they will certainly be attractive — comfort and emancipation are, after all, liberalism’s chief selling points. Indeed, it will be these calls that expose the speculative deficiency. Without necessary recourse to the truth, the strategy is prone to collapse — agents abandoning ship at the slightest adversity or temptation.
Yet despite this danger, I believe the offensive strategy is still worth our effort — contingent upon our placing the speculative over the practical. As did Odysseus when facing his sirens, so too must agents bind themselves to the mast — the mast of objective truth. Above all, this means substantial intellectual formation: a targeted study and contemplation of life’s most important questions: Is there a common good? What is freedom? Does God exist? What is man’s ultimate end? Agents need not turn into academics, but a solid grounding in the truth is necessary to steady agents and mitigate their vulnerability.
Still, the practical nature of the strategy means formation must occur at the level of the individual. Therefore, to those keen upon undertaking this project, first bind yourself to the truth. Pursue intellectual formation. Read great books of the Western, Christian, and Classical traditions — as well as those that oppose them. Take the faith seriously. Find wise mentors and absorb their wisdom. Yes, the practical skills of networking, legislating, and orating are important too, but detached from speculative truth, they are all functionally worthless. By the truth alone are we grounded in reality and propelled towards our proper end. Indeed, the success of Integration from Within — and the post-liberal right — depends on it.
“And you will know the Truth, and the Truth will make you free” (John 8:32).
Samuel D. Samson is a writer working in Washington, D.C. A graduate of the University of Texas, his work focuses on the intersection of modern politics with Thomas Aquinas’ natural law theory and classical teleology. You can follow him on Twitter @SamuelDSamson.