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Interviews

Jonah Bennett on What Comes After Liberalism, Imagining the Near Future, and How to Be a Good Elite

Jonah Bennett is the Editor-in-Chief of Palladium Magazine, a new magazine dedicated to critically examining what comes after liberalism, as well as analyzing trends in governance across the globe and the future that those trends portend. His research interests span political theory, democratic peace theory, peacebuilding, governance, autocracies, ethnic conflict, and post-liberalism. You can follow him on Twitter @BennettJonah.

The Politic: Starting out, I’d like to ask about the thesis you articulated in Palladium’s foundational op-ed, “Towards the Post-Liberal Synthesis,” last September. You claimed that you believe that liberalism is flawed but can be upgraded. Nine months on, how do you think Palladium has done so far in advancing the conversation to this end?

Jonah Bennett: The major way we’ve been answering the initial mission is by laying down some background knowledge, rooted in facts and first principles analysis, on how states and institutions actually work, without assuming the normal liberal paradigm or abstractions. This is what is so often missing: the discourse is choked with new takes on the same old, shrinking background knowledge. What we’ve been doing is expanding the background knowledge, and looking at it with fresh, first principles analysis. This new look at the concrete is what allows us to throw out the old abstractions and build a better paradigm. We’ve created a space where it’s possible to understand the world, analyze it, and think about how we should run it. This is the first step towards being able to replace that paradigm, or successfully navigate its demise.

Pure theory is easy to ignore, often too prescriptive, and morally-laden; theory in the context of real analysis of some interesting phenomenon is much more interesting. So, you can definitely see some of this dynamic embedded in our analysis of Botswana and overcoming the problem of political succession in a non-liberal democratic state. Kazakhstan’s rapid development as a non-liberal state is also something we’ve taken a close look at, in contrast to the failures of Venezuela. In the case of Venezuela, it’s easy to reduce the discussion to the preferred American lens of socialism vs. capitalism, but these abstractions are mostly unhelpful, so we paired concrete analysis and background context with actually sending reporters to Venezuela and Colombia. The Venezuela piece is a good article to read to understand our overall approach.

That said, not everything we write about has to do with liberalism, either directly or indirectly. We take a much more expansive look at the future of governance and society more broadly in our articles.

So, in the vein of governance: the magazine’s tagline is “Governance Futurism.” Why the “ism,” instead of, say, “the Future of Governance”? What are you getting at here?

“The future of governance” is far too definite and academic for our purposes; we wanted something that evoked open possibility, and dynamic, exciting exploration. Ours is a futurism of governance. So, it’s not even really an “-ism” in the usual sense, maybe more of an “-ology.”

As new problems became salient in the political environment, existing and entrenched ideologies will be stagnant and unlikely to adjust in a way that realistically addresses these problems. Voting coalitions and donor bases determine political party platforms, and so existing political parties find it difficult to break themselves out of this iron cast. What this means is that history continually opens doors for the creation of new ideas to more accurately describe these new problems and come up with more realistic solutions. But those doors are opened only to those who are really looking in an open-minded way at the facts of that big picture and letting something suggest itself. We came up with “Governance Futurism” to describe this activity.

Governance Futurism is about examining contemporary and near-future world politics, cutting though all the existing moralization, abstractions, and hype, and focusing on on-the-ground observations and first principles analysis.

We avoid making too many judgments or adopting perspectives, but when it’s necessary, we try to develop the perspective of a responsible ruling class, and of the state. What does a responsible ruling class need to know about how society works? What would a responsible ruling class do? What does the state fundamentally need?

The aim of Governance Futurism is to develop a paradigm of expertise in the practice of the state for the ambitious young Americans who will be future leaders.

That’s fascinating to me, because most outlets do not state their ends in this way—rather, they claim to provide dispassionate “news” in a certain area. How do you plan to cement Palladium in this niche? What does success look like to you, say, three years from now?

That’s a good question. These days only a few self-unaware people in media would hold to the idea of objectivity. Instead, most acknowledge the inherently perspectival nature of any philosophical or journalistic effort. Knowledge is very often practical, which is to say indexed to the needs of particular actors and power structures.

Something like standpoint theory is a good place to start, in the sense that different groups with different positions within a power structure will have very different natural worldviews and blind spots. That seems correct, but people tend to take this too far and end up in epistemological nihilism, or they just use it as an excuse to be uncritical of their own perspective. Dropping objectivity doesn’t have to mean relativism or irrationalism; it just means it’s often difficult to separate the idea of correctness from the idea of usefulness for some purpose.

What we want to do is articulate a perspective that we think is important. In every society regardless of regime type, there always exists an elite class with a hold on the reins of power. How that elite class looks at the world and self-conceives is a major determiner of how well that society will do. We’re interested in making sure the elite in America are cooperative, responsible, clear-headed, and long-termist, especially through the upcoming ideological crisis, so we try to develop a perspective fit for that class and purpose.

This is all not to underrate the importance of truth, which is a very useful idea. Most publications are fundamentally in the business of managing public opinion, which is to say the propaganda business, where truth is at best a side effect. But truth is a core strategic resource for us; if the perspective we present is just propaganda, then it isn’t going to work for its intended purpose, which is to inform responsible rule.

Our strategy for the niche is really simple and related to why we’re open about our ends: it’s our belief that if we simply do good work and are direct about what we’re trying to do and why, then the right people will appreciate that and find us.

As for what success looks like in three years, you’ll have to wait and see.

For better or for worse, many students here at Yale will one day join the elite class that you described. Besides reading Palladium, of course, what should ambitious students here and at peer institutions do to become good elites?

If you’re the ruling class, you need to think like a ruling class. Don’t pretend to be anything less. You have the power to change the world. Accept it, become comfortable with it, organize it, and use it well. Two big problems we see in America are an elite that pretends not to be elite, or is even ignorant of its own power, and relatedly an elite that can’t internally organize to accomplish great things. A frustrated elite develops an adversarial relationship with its society, but still has the power to lash out destructively.

For example, see how much resentment and fighting is generated over the issue of anthropogenic climate change. We all know this needs to be solved, and there are plenty of good ideas to get started, but all the attention is focused on the political fighting, and how much the other guy is just trying to screw us all over. This fighting is detrimental to society, and essentially caused by a lack of political coherence among the elite classes, which prevents effective action, and diffuses responsibility for failure. Contrary to popular mythology, elite incoherence is not a good thing.

The way to repair American society is to be more honest about our own power and our own interests, become more comfortable with that, and become more determined to order that power well. Ultimately, this is just a shift in perspective. We actually have an article coming out soon on this very topic in its expression at Yale, by a former Yale student, for Yale students. Look forward to it.

Our other message, to anyone interested, is to come talk to us. One of the aims of Palladium is to gather up ambitious young people open to a new way of thinking and build a great discourse.

Aside from that, the following five steps will take anyone who is serious and wants to do something truly great in the right direction:

  1. Step outside current norms inculcated by current paradigms, in order to get a wider historical and political perspective.
  2. Pursue truth more aggressively, and don’t confuse social status with truth.
  3. Be willing to push institutional boundaries in accordance with the second point.
  4. Be less individualistic.
  5. Don’t settle for existing Improve the World plans, or yet another high frequency trading firm.