Every decade or so comes an intellectual history book that one has to read. Previous claimants to ‘must-read’ intellectual histories were Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and David Gress’ From Plato to NATO: The Idea of the West and Its Opponents. Now there’s a book bold enough to postulate: “Among the greatest challenges facing humanity is the ability to survive progress” (p. 29). Why Liberalism Failed by Patrick J. Deneen is an insightful and trenchant tome that accomplishes much with its brevity, readable prose, simplicity of style, and the persuasiveness of its overall argument.
Of Liberalism, Patrick J. Deneen candidly remarks:
Liberalism has failed not because it fell short, but because it was true to itself. It has failed because it has succeeded. As liberalism has ‘become more fully itself,’ as its inner logic has become more evident and its self-contradictions manifest, it has generated pathologies that are at once deformation of its claims yet realizations of liberal ideology. A political philosophy that was launched to foster greater equity, defend a tapestry of different cultures and beliefs, protect human dignity, and, of course, expand liberty, in practice generates titanic inequality, enforces uniformity and homogeneity, fosters material and spiritual degradation, and undermines freedom. (p. 3).
Deneen posits that “[T]he political project of liberalism is shaping us into the creatures of its prehistorical fantasy, which in fact required the combined massive apparatus of the modern state, economy, education system, and science and technology to make us into: increasingly separate, autonomous, nonrelational selves replete with rights and defined by our liberty, but insecure, powerless, afraid, and alone.” (p.16) The paradox of liberalism has been its embrace of the state that has liberated man from the past constraints of non-state actors, tradition, patriarchy, clans and guilds, and institutional edifices like the Christian church, and yet liberalism often marched to the beat of a different drummer with the rhetoric of triumphant individualism.
One underlying premise of Deneen’s work is that the liberal enterprise is unsustainable. He notes critically that Liberalism has a marked tendency to impute moral deformity to people, compelling them to adjust their behavior for the worst in service of fulfilling liberal ideals. “Liberalism teaches a people to hedge commitments” opting instead for “flexible relationships”; hence economic and political bonds are “seen as fungible. . .” as well as ties “. . .to place, to neighborhood, to nation, to family, and to religion. . . (p. 34). As Karl Marx phrased his lamentation of liberal “bourgeoisie” values, [liberalism] “put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his ‘natural superiors’, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment.’ It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. . .” (Marx ironically lamented liberalism’s underlying materialism, yet he posited an alternative societal paradigm that put its philosophical materialism on steroids.)
Deneen is keen to the apparent paradox that the fortunes of “individualism and statism advance together, always mutually supportive, and always at the expense of lived and vital relations that stand in contrast to both the starkness of the autonomous individual and the abstraction of our membership in the state” (p. 46). This is a stark reality that extreme Libertarian ideologues prefer to ignore yet the reality is that the rise of the modern global market economy came almost exclusively with an ever increasingly, centralized state. “It is impossible to understand the massive concentrations of political power in the twentieth century, appearing so paradoxically, or it has seemed, right after a century and a half of individualism in economics and morals,” Robert Nisbet explained, “unless we see the close relationship that prevailed all through the nineteenth century between individualism and State power and between both of these together and the general weakening of the area of association that lies intermediate to man and the State” (p. 60, c.f., Robert Nisbet, The Quest For Community: A Study In The Ethics Of Order And Freedom, p. 157).
Just how and why is the liberal political enterprise failing? It comes down to its misunderstanding of human nature. Alongside misguided assumptions of human perfectability that subsume liberal democracy, and quixotic aspirations for spreading liberal democratic institutions world-wide, its anthropology is false much as Marxism proved to be. The modern liberal political enterprise rejects people’s innate sense of rootedness in a life lived out in their local communities as well as freedom of association — all of which have been supplanted by the instrumentality of both the state and the market economy. Despite the dominance of liberalism, society experiences a glaring sense of alienation, increased polarization between rival groups, and the marginalization of the historic voluntary associations such as the church: the former influence of which has been dramatically displaced by the centralized state. The liberal state (and its agents) with its emphasis on individual autonomy has inadvertently, and at times quite intentionally, subverted institutions and associations that stand athwart the iron wills of individual autonomy and their ironic champion: the liberal state.
Liberalism as Anti-Culture
Deneen takes aim at what he characterizes as “Liberal Anticulture,” and he notes that Liberalism has a pronounced tendency to extirpate culture, local conventions, and tradition wherever it advances, as it dissociates nature from culture. It does all of these things in service of Liberal ideals by positing “the absence of cultural forms” in an idealized state of nature whereby the individual embraces a “radical autonomy” reflective of this prehistoric state of nature; on this point, Deneen exorcises the ghosts of Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau who sowed this idea (p. 67). Deneen elucidates upon the origins of the anticulture:
“Anticulture is the consequence of a regime of standardizing law replacing widely observed informal norms that come to be discarded as forms of oppression; and it is the simultaneous consequence of a universal and homogenous market, resulting in a monoculture that, like its agricultural analogue, colonizes and destroys actual cultures rooted in experience, history, and place. These two visages of the liberal anticulture thus free us from other specific people and embedded relationships, replacing custom with abstract and depersonalized law, liberating us from personal obligations and debts, replacing what have come to be perceived as burdens on our individual autonomous freedom with pervasive legal threat and generalized financial indebtedness. In the effort to secure the radical autonomy of individuals, liberal law and the liberal market replace actual culture with an encompassing anticulture. ¶This anticulture is the arena of our liberty—yet increasingly, it is rightly perceived as the locus of our bondage and even a threat to our continued existence. The simultaneous heady joy and gnawing anxieties of a liberated humanity, shorn of the compass of tradition and inheritance that were the hallmarks of embedded culture, are indicators of liberalism’s waxing success and accumulating failure. The paradox is our growing belief that we are thralls to the very sources of our liberation—pervasive legal surveillance and control of people alongside technological control of nature. As the empire of liberty grows, the reality of liberty recedes. The anticulture of liberalism—supposedly the source of our liberation—accelerates liberalism’s success and demise.” (p. 66).
Here Deneen’s analysis shines as his observation that the liberal democratic state in tandem with the market economy has continually acted as a solvent of culture and local convention. Contrary to Libertarian ideology, the market economy advanced with political centralization. Liberalism’s embrace of centralization can be felt in the advocacy of world government by its modern champions from Immanuel Kant to more recently Mises and Hayek. In Liberalism (1927), Ludwig von Mises advocates a “world super-state really deserving of the name,” which will emerge if we “succeed in creating throughout the world . . . nothing less than unqualified, unconditional acceptance of liberalism. Liberal thinking must permeate all nations, liberal principles must pervade all political institutions.” Comparably Friedrich Hayek argued for replacing independent nations with a world-wide federation: “The abrogation of national sovereignties and the creation of an effective international order of law is a necessary complement and the logical consummation of the liberal program.” Liberalism despite its superficial anti-statism in rhetoric advanced its fortunes on centralizing political experiments, and shares the cosmopolitan character of Marxist ideology. This is why liberalism has been so fundamentally radical, revolutionary, and disruptive; despite Francis Fukuyama’s heralding liberal democracy as the end of history, liberalism cannot hold to a benign stasis but rather mutates in undesirable ways emanating ironically from its success.
Deneen recognizes that culture restrained the development of both the centralized liberal democratic state and the market economy. “A core ambition of liberalism is the liberation of such appetites from the artificial constraints of culture—either to liberate them entirely as a condition of our freedom or, where they require constraint, to place them under the uniform and homogenized governance of promulgated law rather than the inconstant impositions and vagaries of diverse cultures.” Contrary to popular libertarian ideology, liberalism — even the classical variety — isn’t merely “an effort to constrain and limit government,” and its early proponents often lobbied for an essentially “powerful and often arbitrary government” from Paris to Philadelphia. . .” which was deemed necessary to “secure the basic conditions of freedom and its requisite stability” (p. 69).
With the success of liberalism in the economic arena, the liberal political enterprise now aims at undermining the remaining cultural constraints upon materialistic and sexual appetites, in the name of advancing freedom and equality. In many ways, as Deneen’s thesis suggests, liberalism is insidious, radical, and transformative of society and is engaged in an on-going “. . .expansive project of conquering nature” (p. 70). Deneen notes how the presence of culture traditionally moderates against the quixotic, rootless, and ultimately utopian traits of the liberal political enterprise, as “liberalism. . . has aimed consistently at dissociating cultural forms from nature. The effect is. . . to liberate [man] from acknowledgement of nature’s limits while rendering culture into wholly relativist belief and practice, untethered from anything universal or enduring. . .” (p. 71). Being at odds with nature, liberalism leaves man lacking in the capacity to properly adjudge his relationship to nature. Liberalism continually dissolves the mediating role previously played by culture and tradition which informed man’s relation to nature in time’s past.
Liberalism in practice has been the solvent of culture, tradition, and local governance. Alexis de Tocqueville noted the advent of liberal political orders with “the experience of fractured time,” and the marked tendency of people in liberal regimes to liberal for the short-term convenience of the presence with ill regard for the ways of the past, and similar indifference towards the consequences of decisions wrought in the present times upon future generations (p. 74). Aristocracy, Tocqueville observed, “links everybody, from peasant to king, in one long chain. Democracy breaks the chain and frees each link. . . . not only does democracy make men forget their ancestors, but also clouds their view of their descendants and isolates them from their contemporaries. . .” (pp. 74-75). Surmising Tocqueville on the matter, Deneen remarks “Modern liberal democracies. . . would have a powerful tendency to act only for the short term, thus to discount the consequences of their actions upon future generations” (p. 75). Deneen hints that we’re nowadays living with the “brutish indifference” apprehended by Tocqueville of liberal man in his views towards the well-being of the working class and poor, natural resource management, and a generalized lack of concern for the impact of present decisions on future generations (p. 76). Liberalism, Deneen disdainfully notes, has succeeded in liberating man from personal obligations to the ways of his forbears as well as posterity; because of man’s fragmentation due to “the fracturing of time,” liberal man is alienated even from the present, and incapable of meaningful self-government, owing to his essential rootlessness from ancestors, culture, custom, tradition, time and place (p. 77). Deneen cites agrarian thinkers such as Wendell Berry to further his case that liberalism debases true culture and community (pp. 78-79). Deneen conjures Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn who “clearly perceived the lawlessness at the heart of liberal orders,” which he elucidated upon in his 1978 commencement address at Harvard entitled, “A World Split Apart.” Therein, Solzhenitsyn criticized liberal reliance upon “legalistic” life, and liberalism’s obsessive quest for autonomy which stood athwart our natural liberty (p. 82). The nub of Solzhitsyn’s argument was that liberalism’s chief moral failing is an inability to “foster self-governance” (p. 83) Deneen stresses that the Liberal Anticulture‘s revolution acts as a perpetual solvent of cultural ties, rootedness in place, and devoid of connections to the past and tradition: “Longstanding local rules and cultures that governed behavior through education and cultivation of norms, manners, and morals came to be regarded as oppressive limitations on individual liberty” (p. 84) Deneen aptly describes liberalism as “parasitic”, adding that:
“Liberalism extends itself by inhabiting spaces abandoned by local cultures and traditions, leading either to their discarding or suppression or, far more often, to their contentless redefinition. Rather than produce our own cultures, grounded in local places, embedded in time, and usually developed from an inheritance from relatives, neighbors, and community—music, art, storytelling, food—we are more likely to consume prepackaged, market- tested, mass- marketed consumables, often branded in commercialized symbolism that masks that culture’s evisceration (p. 88).”
Devoid of cultural norms and tradition, however, liberal man is unequipped for self-government. The implications point to the trajectory of liberalism’s future leading inadvertently to alienation and nihilistic despair.
Under Liberalism, Thrasymachus and the Strong Wins
In Plato’s dialogues contained in The Republic, a character therein, namely Thrasymachus, infamously posited that “justice is nothing more than the will of the stronger. . .” and under the present Liberal paradigm that axiom has been ratified into practice, despite incessant pieties to equality by liberal ideologues, though it’s never officially acknowledged to be the case.
In marked contrast to the Millian principle, Edmund Burke posited the rule by the ordinary, in which custom and prejudice provided a host of moral imperatives that animated society. Americans were Burkeans in practice even if they never were well acquainted with Burke’s writings:
“Most [Americans] lived in accordance with custom — with basic moral assumptions concerning the fundamental norms that accompanied a good life. You should respect authority, beginning with your parents. You should display modest and courteous comportment. You should avoid displays of lewdness or titillation. You should engage in sexual activity only when married. You should have children — generally lots of them. You should live within your means. You should thank and worship the Lord. You should pay respect to the elderly and remember and acknowledge your debts to the dead. (p. 147)
Whereas Millian society is organized for the benefit of the strong, influential and powerful, “by contrast, a Burkean society is organized for the benefit of the ordinary – the majority who benefit from societal norms that the strong and the ordinary alike can be expected to follow.” Deneen explains that civil society can be rendered beneficial to the great mass of people by its emphasis upon “. . .informal norms and customs that secure the path to flourishing for most human beings; or it can be shaped for the benefit of the extraordinary and powerful by liberating all from the constraint of custom. Our society was once shaped on the basis of the benefit for the many ordinary; today it is shaped largely for the benefit of the few strong.
In the past, classical liberalism summoned Alexis de Tocqueville, a liberal of sorts with a capacity for analysis and reflection upon the human condition, had evaluated American political institutions with a mixture of admiration, detachment, sympathy, and skepticism. De Tocqueville prophetically lamented that democracy lacks sufficient capacity for future considerations and tends towards a short-term expedient mindset, and as Deneen observes:
“Alexis de Tocqueville noted the connection between the rise of liberal orders and the experience of fractured time. He observed that liberal democracy would be marked above all by a tendency toward presentism. In its egalitarianism and especially in its rejection of aristocracy, it would be suspicious of the past and future, encouraging instead a kind of stunted individualism” (p. 74).
Yet this postmodern wasteland seldom produces an Alexis de Tocqueville, who possesses the capacity for prudent reflection and criticism of the very liberal institutions he celebrates, but rather the present-day yields ideologues whose worldviews conform to their pet theories while their pet theories are seldom in accord with either historical experience nor the human condition. Patrick Deneen notes that Liberal critics of Liberalism lack the detachment and objectivity to critique it honestly, as he notes “liberalism’s apologists regard pervasive discontent, political dysfunction, economic inequality, civic disconnection, and populist rejection as accidental problems disconnected from systematic causes” engendered by the present paradigm, and “their self-deception” emanates from the vast culmination of interests that aim to preserve the status quo (p. 180).
What Hath Liberalism Wrought?
Alexis de Tocqueville, the French journalist and observer of Jacksonian America, envisioned a future dystopian United States where life itself became enervated by a phenomenon that maybe aptly described as “democratic despotism.” Tocqueville writes:
After having thus taken each individual one by one into its powerful hands, and having molded him as it pleases, the sovereign power extends its arms over the entire society; it covers the surface of society with a network of small, complicated, minute, and uniform rules, which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot break through to go beyond the crowd; it does not break wills, but it softens them, bends them and directs them; it rarely forces action, but it constantly opposes your acting; it does not destroy, it prevents birth; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, it represses, it enervates, it extinguishes, it stupifies, and finally it reduces each nation to being nothing more than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd. ¶I have always believed that this sort of servitude, regulated, mild and peaceful, of which I have just done the portrait, could be combined better than we imagine with some of the external forms of liberty, and that it would not be impossible for it to be established in the very shadow of the sovereignty of the people.
In many ways the dystopia foreshadowed by Alexis de Tocqueville has come to ripe fruition in the twenty-first century Western world. Deneen observes, “For liberal theory, while the individual ‘creates’ the state through the social contract, in a practical sense, the liberal state ‘creates’ the individual by providing the conditions for the expansion of liberty, increasingly defined as the capacity of humans to expand their mastery over circumstance.” Deneen adds:
“Far from their being an inherent conflict between the individual and the state — as so much of modern political reporting would suggest — liberalism establishes a deep and profound connection: its ideal of liberty can be realized only through a powerful state. If the expansion of freedom is secured by law, then the opposite also holds true in practice: increasing freedom requires the expansion of law. The state does not merely serve as a referee between contesting individuals; in securing our capacity to engage in productive activities, especially commerce, it establishes a condition in reality that existed in theory only in a the state of nature: the ever-increasing achievement of the autonomous individual” (p. 49).
The Future Prognosis
Patrick J. Deneen’s prescience about liberalism being doomed is spot on. I accept it and find it well-reasoned. “The logic of liberalism,” Deneen observes, “will inexorably continue to unfold, impelling the ship toward the inevitable iceberg.” Liberal democracy, in essence, will prove itself to be an unsustainable enterprise that’s doomed to inevitable failure. Its present difficulties are embedded to the paradigm itself, and the contradictions may prove too difficult to work out of the operating system, as Liberalism itself is the disease, and stability and a future requires an operating system reboot.
Nevertheless, Deneen leaves a lot of unanswered questions. He doesn’t purport to be a far-reaching prophet so much, and the future is uncharted, and Deneen hasn’t endeavored to predict the future with any degree of specificity so much as reveal how liberalism has unraveled by its own paradoxical contradictions. Nathaniel Blake notes in his review within The Federalist:
“If liberalism has failed: what next? Deneen does not embrace the rise of populist strongmen and ethno-nationalism, or other unsavory alternatives rising in response to liberalism’s failures. But he argues that more liberalism, or a purer liberalism, will only make things worse. We must consider the future of liberty after liberalism, or else offer reasons to believe liberalism can be reformed.”
Originality is not a hallmark of Why Liberalism Failed. In many ways, Deneen’s insightful critique is immensely complimented by his ability to summon the wisdom of the most able socio-political thinkers in modern times, such as: Alexis de Tocqueville, famous for his Jacksonian era reflection upon America political culture, namely Democracy in America; Robert Nisbet, whose renown emanates from his sociological work The Quest for Community which posits that the intermediary institutions between the individual and the state are essential to civil society, and the breakdown of authentic local community and its institutions emanating from expanding central state authority is to the detriment of civilizational, political, and societal stability; and Edmund Burke, the British conservative liberal, famous for his Reflections on the Revolution in France, had critiqued the Jacobin innovators of his time in their efforts to make society anew.
In his article “The Problem With Liberty: A Warning to Conservatives,” Deneen admonishes conservative readers to note the critical influence of Alexis de Tocquville, Edmund Burke, and especially Robert Nisbet:
Conservatives of an earlier generation like Robert Nisbet recognized that the rise of individual autonomy and centralized power would grow together, that Leviathan would expand in the name of liberty. He understood that the most fundamental obstacle to the rise and expansion of the State was the “little platoons” praised by Edmund Burke: particular and real ties to familial, religious, and civil institutions. ¶[Nisbet] called for a “new laissez faire,” a laissez-faire of groups. He understood that what would prevent the rise of the kind of the liberty promised by Leviathan would be something like a robust patchwork of more local institutions and relationships that affords true responsibility demanded of adults: debts and gratitude to each other, obligations and responsibilities that should and must be grounded in real human relationships, not in a dependency upon a distant and impersonal State. Such arrangements reject the cold indifference of a world composed of radically individuated selves connected only abstractly through the State.Patrick J. Deneen, “The Problem With Liberty: A Warning to Conservatives,” Ethika Politika (Dec. 2, 2015).
What Other Reviewers Are Saying in Approvation of Deneen’s Thesis
Aram Bakshian writing in the Washington Times observes of Deneen’s book: “I was deeply impressed by the force and conviction of his critique of today’s liberal social and political order, and his analysis of its gradual evolution over time.”
Gene Callahan notes in The American Conservative that “Patrick Deneen’s new book, out today, plays mortician for one of America’s most popular ideologies,” to which he adds, “Notre Dame professor Patrick Deneen has written a book vitally important for understanding the present crisis in Western politics. If this work had appeared two or three years ago, it still would have been of great significance, but coming as it does in the wake of Brexit, Trump, and other shocks to the liberal consensus, its relevance is further enhanced. . .”
Fred Bauer’s review in the National Review is compelling, as he remarks:
“Deneen offers liberalism as the last survivor of the three major modern ideologies, the other two being fascism and communism. He argues that the quest for autonomy (to be independent and self-directing) is one of the driving forces of liberalism, which has come to define liberty as “the condition in which one can act freely in the sphere unconstrained by positive law.” This is in contrast to the classical view of liberty as self-rule and, thus, as “the learned capacity of human beings to conquer the slavish pursuit of base and hedonistic desire.” To Deneen, modern liberalism defines freedom as the absence of restraint, and takes attaining such a state as its primary purpose. The Right and Left — “conservatives” and “progressives” — might differ on what restraints should be dissolved, but both, he claims, make the liberal promise of autonomy a central goal. “
What Other Reviewers Are Saying Critical of Deneen’s Thesis
Some critics of Why Liberalism Failed, such as Paul D. Miller’s piece “Does Liberalism Have A Future?” in Providence Magazine, have suggested that Deneen failed to take a nuanced view of liberalism in its various incarnations from the classical liberalism to the late progressivism that is often paradoxically illiberal, but rather Deneen conflates the liberalism of Locke with the Progressivism of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. I have no doubt of Deneen’s capacity for reflection to differentiate between classical liberalism of Thomas Jefferson, John Locke, and Adam Smith from the neo-liberalism of Hayek and Mises to the later-day Progressivism of Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Elizabeth Warren.
What if the later-day Progressivism and Social Democracy’s dissolution are but a portent of future Spenglerian catastrophe of societal oblivion that the unworkable liberal paradigm — with its myriad contradictions and paradoxes — inevitably leads us toward?
Liberalism has for centuries been lumbering forward and mutating in its bubbling ether of contradictions. And Deneen correctly identifies its substantive principles, and tacitly acknowledges the very freedom it engendered, led to its myraid incarnations and mutant offspring including Soviet Communism and Fascism that cannot be adequately understood without first understanding the liberal soil these totalitarian ideologies grew up in. The polemic tendered by Miller is wrought by its own failed analysis. Deneen seems to have a more penetrating mind and prognostic ability than given credit for. On the whole, Deneen adequately digested his research material, and carefully avoided dwelling on minutia, avoiding tweezing out every nuance, so as to illuminate his profound hypothesis with clarity. Its brevity is actually a testament to its genius, because many scholars lose their clarity of message in the labyrinth of nuance.
Classical liberalism was unable to maintain any sort of stasis as a civilizational-societal paradigm for Western Civilization, and in reality, it underwent a metamorphosis and evolution so to speak. Progressivism similarly failed. Accordingly, any effort at being nostalgic for the old classical liberal vision of free-markets and a night-watchman state doesn’t change the present reality, and this sort of well-wishing is futile at best.
Contrary to the insinuations of the left-wing daily, The Guardian, Deneen doesn’t idealize ripping the vestige of liberalism out root and branch as he is keen to see that liberalism grew up in the soil of the classics and Christianity filtered through the Middle Ages into modern times.
Other criticisms of Patrick Deneen’s work are dismissive and sophomoric, such as Christian Gonzalez‘s insistence that “Patrick Deneen’s critique of liberalism exhibits an undue nostalgia for the past and ingratitude for the virtues of the present,” an article which ironically appeared in National Review, a neoconservative magazine whose cultural criticism now devolves to concerns about the ills of “sexism” in response to Deneen’s observation about the consequences of feminist emancipation at the behest of market liberalism; yet a clear implication has been increased job competition for the former patriarchal heads of the household, higher male unemployment, the deterioration of the notional living wage for the patriarch, and decreasing fertility rates among couples. With domestic birth rates being well below the replacement level fertility of 2.1 children per couple, feminism’s gains (at the behest of liberal institutions) is more curse than a blessing. As Deneen himself put it, “All but forgotten are arguments, such as those made in the early Republic, that liberty consists of independence not only from the arbitrariness of a king but of an employer,” hence the landed freeholder was ideal, yet Liberalism preaches false freedom where the wife has freedom from the husband, and the result is she’s shackled to the workplace, amid an imploding fertility rate while there are more unmarried adults than married adults in the United States, all of which considered jointly offer a portent of a civilization on the road to ruins. (The fact that this book review in an ostensibly conservative magazine reads like something appearing in Mother Jones or The New Republic is telling enough about the intellectual weakness of mainstreamed conservatism, which is but another variant of liberalism at best, and it willingly sacrificed tradition, familial stability, and Christian moral norms in the service of market efficiency and the demands of the indifferent ruling elite.)
Envisioning Order in a World After the Liberal Paradigm
If one wants to conjure Leo Strauss and take an esoteric reading of Why Liberalism Failed, here’s the capsule summary of implications emanating from this provocative and remarkable thesis. Deneen is not interested in begging authoritarian or totalitarian alternatives to liberalism. To suggest otherwise would be intellectually disingenuous. That he believes Liberalism as a civilizational paradigm is beset by unworkable contradictions and all but doomed to implode on itself is granted. He doesn’t purport to prophesize exactly what the outcome will be, but the clear implication is that we’re in a time of upheaval as liberalism nears its death throws.
What Deneen implicitly points to as an alternative paradigm would be informed by our actual historical experience with liberalism. Any supplanting paradigm that succeeds liberalism would be aimed at preserving some of the beneficial hallmarks of Liberalism, but nevertheless, jettisons its worst and glaringly inconvenient attributes. An obvious alternative to the failed liberal paradigm would be a revitalized civil society that places as much stress on an individual’s embrace of his duties, obligations, and sense of personal responsibility to fulfill these obligations, as the current emphasis on the autonomy and rights of the individual has had with the present, albeit failed liberal paradigm. As Russell Kirk observed:
Man’s rights are linked with man’s duties, and when they distorted into extravagant claims for a species of freedom and equality and world aggrandizement which human character cannot sustain, they degenerate from rights to vices. Equality in the sight of God, equality before the law, security in what is one’s own, participation in the common activities and consolations of society — these are the true natural rights. The presumptuous demands of Rousseau, Condorcet, Helvetius, and Paine for absolute liberties which no state in history ever could accord are the very reverse of natural justice; they are unnatural because impious, ‘the result of a selfish temper, and confined views.’ In the political sphere, these claims are absurd, for the exercise of any must be circumscribed and modified to suit particular circumstances.Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot, 7th Rev. Ed. (Washington, DC: Regnery Gateway Editions, 1953, 2016), 63-64.
Francis Leiber put it more simply: “No duty without its right. No right without its duty.” Another obvious alternative to the failed Liberal paradigm would be the revitalization of the intermediary institutions between the individual and the state, i.e., voluntary civic associations. Under later-day progressive ideology, freedom of association once characterized as the “cornerstone” of freedoms by Alexis de Tocqueville, has been encroached upon by ever-expanding central state authority. The former role carried on by the intermediary associations (e.g., the church, benevolent societies, guilds, voluntary civic associations, et al.) between the individual and the state has been displaced and trounced upon by the modern liberal democratic political enterprise. The revitalization of civil society that is so necessary to finding order and stability after liberalism is rooted in the primacy of the local community. As Deneen notes: “Properly conceived, the community is the appropriate setting for flourishing human life. . . that requires culture, discipline, constraint, and forms” (p. 79). For the liberal anticulture to be bridled, in effect, authority and power must devolve to local communities where culture and tradition can be revitalized, and allowed to flourish once more — absent the impositions of the liberal state.
Deneen dismisses the quaint notion of going back to the good old days as there’s no primordial past or golden age prior to liberalism that can be effectively summoned (p. 184). He suggests “we must outgrow the age of ideology,” and repudiate flawed, full-fledged theories of human societal reworking and reorganization, such as Marxism, which should be dismissed because of its false anthropology so at odds with human nature (pp. 141, 183, 187). But as well, the implicit argument is that Liberalism much like Marxism “is based on falsehood about human nature, and can’t but help to fail. . .” (p. 6).
Deneen envisions a post-liberal Western society rooted in a newfound emphasis on local communities—grounded by the activities and influence of non-state entities grounded in the primacy of faith and family. Deneen remarks: “What we need today are practices fostered in local settings, focused on the creation of new and viable cultures, economics grounded in virtuosity within households, and the creation of a civic polis life. Not better theory, but better practices” (p. 197). Smaller communities and responsive local governance would cultivate the culture requisite to offer a fulfilling, meaningful human existence, and overcome the alienation so endemic to the failed status quo of the Liberal paradigm.
All things considered, Patrick J. Deneen’s insightful book is an erudite and masterful work on the failure and inevitable catastrophe that awaits the liberal paradigm. It’s important to stress he is not advocating throwing the baby out with the bathwater by repudiating every positive societal result emanating from Liberalism’s success. The thesis is provocative, engaging, but also ironic, and as Deneen paradoxically notes: “Liberalism’s success today is most visible in the gathering signs of its failure. It has remade the world in its image. . . Yet our liberation renders us incapable of resisting these defining forces—the promise of freedom results in thralldom to inevitabilities to which we have no choice but to submit” (p. 16). The illusion of contemporary political theater is that “we choose between protection of individual liberty and expansion of state activity. . .” when the reality is individual liberty and state expansion “both move simultaneously in tune with our deepest philosophic premises” (p. 17).
Overall the book is well-written and possesses fluid prose that’s easy-to-read. The thesis is engrossing. Deneen recognizes the integral nature of culture and the local community to Western Civilization and those essentially preliberal institutions have provided the basis of social and political order, as well as social cohesion, for centuries. Renewal of Western society, and liberalism if it’s indeed possible to renew liberalism, requires recurrence to essentially ancient and/or medieval ideals, such as: the inviolability of the traditional family, and the recognition of the importance of faith and Christian religion at defining cultural moral norms. Renewal won’t happen overnight, and it entails summoning what Alexis de Tocqueville lauded as the “corps intermédiaires” and Burke affectionately dubbed “the little platoons.”