Review of Why Liberalism Failed by Patrick Deneen

That Western civilization is in trouble seems to be a truism nowadays. Some bemoan growing income inequality or lack of concern for the environment or the greed and corruption of big corporations, while others wring their hands over the crumbling of traditional moral values and the increasing intrusion of big government into people’s lives. Political partisanship seems to be deepening, making it hard to find political solutions to problems, in a world that increasingly looks to politics to solve everything. Given this state of affairs, it is natural to ask, what went wrong? How did we get into this mess? And what do we do now?

Patrick Deneen has an unconventional answer: Western civilization is falling apart not because it has failed to live up to its ideals, but because it has succeeded in doing so. What we are witnessing now is simply the logical outcome of the political philosophy of liberalism, on which the United States (as well as other Western nations) has been predicated for the last few hundred years. Therefore, we cannot solve our societal problems by applying liberal fixes; liberalism is rotten to its core. Like its failed rivals fascism and communism, liberalism is a false ideology based on a false anthropology.

Before proceeding further, it is important to clarify that what Deneen means by liberalism is not quite the same as what many people mean by the term today. Deneen is referring to the political philosophy that was developed by people such as Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Stuart Mill, and John Dewey. As Deneen summarizes it:

It conceived humans as rights-bearing individuals who could fashion and pursue for themselves their own versions of the good life. Opportunities for liberty were best afforded by a limited government devoted to “securing rights,” along with a free-market economic system that gave space for individual initiative and ambition. Political legitimacy was grounded on a shared belief in an originating “social contract” to which even newcomers could subscribe, ratified continuously by free and fair elections of responsive representatives.

Most if not all the ingredients listed here are accepted in principle by both “liberals” (or “progressives”) and “conservatives” today, even if they disagree on the exact limits of the free market, the government, and individual rights. Therefore, when Deneen levels his critique at liberalism itself, he is presenting a far more radical and penetrating attack than we see in most contemporary political discourse.

Deneen also carefully distinguishes liberalism from what he regards as its premodern precursors. According to Deneen, classical and Christian thinking emphasized “virtue and the cultivation of self-limitation and self-rule” and the affirmation of existing “norms and social structures arrayed extensively throughout political, social, religious, economic, and familial life.” Liberalism rejected these social structures, declaring them to be sources of oppression, and instead of encouraging people to exercise self-control over their appetites, it conceived of liberty as the freedom of individuals to pursue gratification of those appetites. Traditional social structures were uprooted, leaving only a collection of deracinated (to use one of Deneen’s favorite words) individuals whose rights were protected by the state. Deneen argues that liberalism promoted not culture but anticulture, and dissociated man from his natural environment, his geographical context, and his historical context.

Deneen places particular emphasis on liberalism’s framing of the relationship between man and nature in antagonistic terms. In this regard, he reminds me of Daniel Quinn’s book Ishmael, which forcefully argues that Western society has chosen to be Takers rather than Leavers when it comes to nature, and that this attitude has propelled Taker civilization on an unsustainable path towards certain collapse. Deneen cites John Dewey, who, echoing Francis Bacon’s project of conquering nature, wrote that scientists

must force the apparent facts of nature into forms different to those in which they familiarly present themselves; and thus make them tell the truth about themselves, as torture may compel an unwilling witness to reveal what he has been concealing.

Having laid out the basic premises of liberalism, Deneen then proceeds to trace out their consequences. Individuals, now liberated from traditional constraints and encouraged to pursue untrammeled hedonism, are restrained only by the state, which is then forced to expand more and more in order to keep people in check.

Ironically, the more completely the sphere of autonomy is secured, the more comprehensive the state must become. Liberty, so defined, requires liberation from all forms of associations and relationships, from family to church, from schools to village and community, that exerted control over behavior through informal and habituated expectations and norms. These controls were largely cultural, not political—law was less extensive and existed largely as a continuation of cultural norms, the informal expectations of behavior learned through family, church, and community. With the liberation of individuals from these associations, there is more need to regulate behavior through the imposition of positive law. At the same time, as the authority of social norms dissipates, they are increasingly felt to be residual, arbitrary, and oppressive, motivating calls for the state to actively work toward their eradication.

Rather than take sides in the debate between laissez-faire free markets versus governmental regulation, Deneen sees both sides as playing off against each other, and contributing to people’s increasing malaise. People’s appetites are never satiated, and so the expansion of markets and the exploitation of nature continue to grow at an unsustainable pace, while at the same time the distant and impersonal government enacts more and more legislation in a futile attempt at control.

The expansion of liberalism rests upon a vicious and reinforcing cycle in which state expansion secures the end of individual fragmentation, in turn requiring further state expansion to control a society without shared norms, practices or beliefs. … The ways in which the individualist philosophy of classical liberalism and the statist philosophy of progressive liberalism end up reinforcing each other often go undetected. … Is it mere coincidence that both parties, despite their claims to be locked in a political death grip, mutually advance the cause of liberal autonomy and inequality?

The feeling that many people today have about the state, namely that it is beyond their control and unresponsive to their needs, is not a sign that liberalism has drifted away from its ideals. Rather, by unmooring people from any local attachments, liberalism designedly leaves people with nothing to turn to except a distant, centralized government. According to Deneen, liberalism was intended from the start to create a “new aristocracy” that would have all the political power. The masses would be pacified by their free access to objects of their private desires, and by periodic elections that would give the appearance of democratic power but that would actually serve to perpetuate the “liberalocracy.”

A particularly interesting aspect of Deneen’s analysis is his view of technology. Deneen argues that liberalism first of all instills its values in us by replacing a liberal arts education with an exclusive focus on skills that are supposed to ensure economic success for its graduates, such as STEM training. Then, liberalism encourages us to think of technology as a juggernaut whose constant march forwards cannot possibly be stopped. Ironically, the conquering of nature that is supposed to liberate us seems to do just the opposite.

We regard our condition as one of freedom, whereas from the standpoint of liberal modernity, adherents of Amish culture are widely perceived to be subject to oppressive rules and customs. Yet we should note that while we have choices about what kind of technology we will use—whether a sedan or a jeep, an iPhone or a Galaxy, a Mac or a PC—we largely regard ourselves as subject to the logic of technological development and ultimately not in a position to eschew any particular technology. By contrast, the Amish—who seem to constrain so many choices—exercise choice over the use and adoption of technologies based upon criteria upon which they base their community. Who is free?

There are other aspects to Deneen’s critique that cannot be fully described in a brief review, but I believe that the above summary captures the key points. What are we to make of his analysis?

The greatest strength of Deneen’s book is that it offers a comprehensive conceptual framework that yields a unified explanation for many seemingly disparate problems of modern civilization. Corruption in big corporations is not a totally separate issue from changing sexual mores; both are linked to an implicit assumption that the private pursuit of our appetites is a good thing, and both provide excuses for the centralized government to impose itself on the citizenry in the name of protecting them from each other. Long commutes to work are not an accidental feature of modern life; they arise because people have learned to value higher income and suburban luxury over the benefits of remaining rooted in the same place among extended family and friends for many generations—in keeping with the values encouraged by liberalism. People focus their time and energy on national politics rather than local politics, even though they have far less control over the former than the latter, because liberalism has taught them to care only about the centralized state and not to bother forming attachments to local communities. Deneen is to be congratulated for providing a fresh narrative that makes sense of so many different features of modern life at once; this is no small achievement.

Here is a specific example that I encountered recently that beautifully illustrates Deneen’s points. In November 2017, James Bridle wrote an article entitled, “Something is wrong on the internet.” Bridle draws attention to the phenomenon of creepy and disturbing kids’ videos that have sprung up on YouTube, for reasons that are not totally clear because the videos are often partially created by mysterious, automated algorithms, and they are posted with some degree of anonymity—the ultimate in deracination. The interesting thing, from the point of view of Deneen’s theory, is that there are really only two kinds of solutions that are typically considered: (1) more technology or (2) more government intervention. Yet the deeper fact that the entire system is based on the premise that it is a good thing to satiate users’ cravings, as measured by clicks and dollars, goes unquestioned.

Despite my respect for Deneen’s insights, I do feel that his theory suffers from a problem that plagues all grand sociological theories, namely that the answers it provides are often a little too neat and prepackaged. For example, as I said above, Deneen blames liberalism for deracinating people—separating them from their geographical, temporal, historical, familial, and cultural context—and he paints an idyllic picture of the good old days.

A society can be shaped for the benefit of most people by emphasizing mainly 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.

This passage prompts me to ask a simple question: What is Deneen smoking? Even a casual study of history makes it abundantly clear that throughout human history, society has virtually always been structured for the benefit of the few strong. Most people lived lives of servitude or slavery, toiling thanklessly to provide wealth for the wealthy, or getting killed in wars. Liberalism may not have changed this, but it is absurd to claim that life was rosy for everyone before liberalism came along.

More generally, I am not convinced that everything that Deneen blames liberalism for is really attributable to liberalism. Some conflicts in society arise simply because society is heterogeneous. In the case of the United States, Europeans arrived, conquered the natives, imported slaves, and welcomed (some) immigrants from all around the world. I do not think that liberalism was the primary cause of all these population movements, and once you have people from so many different backgrounds being thrown together, there can be no such thing as universally “shared cultural norms, institutions, and associations.” If liberalism has reacted by trying to impose a new national identity on everyone, then this is hardly a new tactic; emperors throughout the ages have understood that uprooting people and forcing them to abandon tribal allegiances in favor of emperor worship is one of the most effective ways of pre-empting organized rebellions and securing a measure of global peace.

From a Christian point of view, I am not entirely happy with Deneen’s reference to a “classical or Christian understanding of liberty.” Deneen makes it sound like Christianity has always taught that by exercising self-control, we can achieve true freedom and a healthy society. Undoubtedly one can find threads within the Christian tradition that promote this viewpoint, particularly within the Roman Catholic tradition to which Deneen belongs, but it is hardly the only Christian view, and I would argue that it is not even the dominant Christian view. The New Testament teaches that we are enslaved by sin. We do not achieve freedom by exercising self-control; freedom is available only through Christ, who sets us free from the bondage of sin. As for how to create a healthy society, the New Testament writers said precious little on the subject since it was not one of their main concerns.

Suppose, however, we set aside these objections, and ask the practical question, what are we to do now? Deneen’s main suggestion is to start at a grass-roots level and build what he calls a “counter-anticulture.” Here, Deneen borrows many ideas from Wendell Berry, whom he quotes several times throughout the book. Deneen emphasizes building local communities that take into account local circumstances, and fostering “economic habits that are developed to support the flourishing of households but which in turn seek to transform the household into a small economy [where] utility and ease must be rejected in preference to practices of local knowledge and virtuosity.” As for government, Deneen insists on “greater political self-governance” of the sort that Alexis de Tocqueville praised in his famous evaluation of democracy in America.

It remains to be seen whether Deneen’s proposal for building a post-liberal society can succeed. Personally, I find some of his basic goals appealing, such as his emphasis on curbing one’s appetites and on refusing to go along tamely with big technological or governmental juggernauts. The main concerns I have are recognized by Deneen himself.

First, the achievements of liberalism must be acknowledged, and the desire to “return” to a preliberal age must be eschewed. We must build upon those achievements while abandoning the foundational reasons for its failures. There can be no going back, only forward. Second, we must outgrow the age of ideology. … Instead of trying to conceive a replacement ideology … we should focus on developing practices that foster new forms of culture, household economics, and polis life.

Despite Deneen’s lip service to these concerns, I am not sure he recognizes how difficult it is to address them. Deneen does not spend much space in his book acknowledging the achievements of liberalism, and to the extent he does, he seems to have no clear proposal for how to retain those achievements. For example, almost everyone regards modern advances in medical science to be a wonderful thing, but arguably, those achievements were made possible only because of the Baconian project of conquering nature that Deneen attacks so ferociously. I am highly skeptical that Deneen’s household economies will be able to sustain, let alone advance, modern medical science. As for avoiding ideology, that is far easier said than done. Any system of values, including Deneen’s, can easily turn into an ideology once it becomes the basis for political power. In particular, Deneen’s talk of cultural norms that were universally shared in the pre-liberal world strikes me as little more than an ideological fiction.

Having said all that, I do think that Deneen has written an important book. By framing a fresh critique, he has given us a new way to look at the political arena that transcends many of the partisan divides that dominate political discourse today. Whether or not you agree with everything he says, your thinking will be broadened by studying his arguments carefully.

Posted May 2018

Back to Christian Stuff