Liberalism at a Crossroads

Elliot Setzer

Patrick Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed. Yale University Press, 248 pages, $30.00

Two truths exist in uneasy tension: liberalism has triumphed over its opponents, and liberalism is in mortal decay. Under the first, we inhabit the so-called “end of history,” where liberalism—with its focus on the rights and freedoms of the individual—has felled its main competitors, communism and fascism. Look around the world and we see liberal regimes, justified in liberal terms. Pax Liberalis, thy kingdom hath come.

Under the second, liberalism’s fate hangs in the balance. The resurgence of illiberalism across Europe points to a profound unease with the status quo. In America, a political revolt against liberal elites yielded Donald J. Trump. Defenders of liberalism find themselves forced to acknowledge the disenchantment of the “other half,” those disadvantaged by neoliberal economics and regarded contemptuously by the cultural elite of the coasts. Bellum Americanum.

How can we make sense of these competing truths? Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed claims to offer both an explanation and a call to action. He argues that both statements above are true: liberalism has failed precisely because it has succeeded. Though the book was completed immediately before the 2016 American election, it helps us understand what has happened since. Deneen calls liberalism the oldest and last major modern ideology to have “proposed transforming all aspects of human life to conform to a preconceived plan.” But where the others have failed, liberalism has succeeded, shaping our modern culture, politics, and society. For Deneen, a professor of political science at Notre Dame, liberalism is essentially a 500-year-old wager that the world would improve if we re-ordered our politics.

Liberalism proposed that we conceive of humans as rights-bearing individuals who could fashion and pursue their own versions of the good life. This would be best achieved by a free-market economic system and a limited government legitimated by free-and-fair elections. Yet something has gone awry:

Nearly every one of the promises that were made by the architects and creators of liberalism has been shattered. The liberal state expands to control nearly every aspect of life while citizens regard government as a distant and uncontrollable power, one that only extends their sense of powerlessness by relentlessly advancing the project of ‘globalization.’ The only rights that seem  secure today belong to those with sufficient wealth and position to protect them, and their autonomy [...] is increasingly compromised by legal intent or technological fait accompli.

But the solution isn’t more liberalism, institutional tinkering, or reforms to our political system, Deneen says. Our present problems don’t stem from a failure to live up to liberal ideals. Rather, in some strange dialectic, liberalism “has failed because it has succeeded”—its disastrous effects spring from its central ideology. They are the system’s features, not its bugs. “To call for the cures of liberalism’s ills by applying more liberal measures,” he argues, “is tantamount to throwing gas on a raging fire.”

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What Deneen sets out to argue is that the political philosophy underlying American politics is utterly bankrupt. This diagnosis, and most importantly its timing, is why the book has received such broad attention. Very little is truly new here, and Deneen mainly rehashes critiques that Catholic conservatives have offered for decades, perhaps most notably in Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue. Even so, Why Liberalism Failed offers a bold critique of contemporary American society and the ideas that underpin it.

The breadth of Deneen’s critique—with chapters analyzing everything from politics and economics to education and science and technology—comes at the cost of nuance, but it also means that there is something for everyone. Deneen has received praise from across the ideological spectrum, including from Cornel West, who called the book “courageous and timely” in light of “the rude awakening of the Trump moment,” adding that “if we remain tied to liberalism’s failure, more inequality, repression, and spiritual emptiness await us.” The diagnosis proposed in Why Liberalism Failed has also resonated with the right. Both David Brooks and Ross Douthat have written appreciative op-eds in The New York Times, and Gene Callahan has called the book “vitally important for understanding the present crisis of Western politics” in the pages of The American Conservative.

The effect for most readers, liberal or conservative, must be simultaneous approval and scepticism. Deneen is critical of laissez-faire economics and a reliance on market mechanisms, and points to income inequality, climate change, resource depletion, groundwater contamination, and species extinction as evidence of liberalism’s failure. Yet he’s also critical of secularism and “infinitely fluid sexual identity,” and sees declining birth rates and rising divorce rates as signs of cultural crisis. His comments on feminism offer an example: he approvingly cites the Marxist feminist theorist Nancy Fraser to comment on the exploitation of women in the “workforce of market capitalism,” but then ultimately suggests that they might have been better off if they had never entered the workforce at all.

Why Liberalism Failed is a call for deep pessimism both about our current world and the achievements of modernity. While it appeals to sceptics of all stripes, not all are convinced by the apparent signs of decay. Interestingly, another strain of argument has appeared alongside it in the Trump era—one that seeks to reassure us that everything is totally fine. Why Liberalism Failed is, in effect, the direct antithesis of Stephen Pinker’s new book Enlightenment Now, which claims that human beings are now flourishing. Pinker argues that human beings are healthier, richer, and better educated than ever before, and proposes that these advances are a direct result of the Enlightenment itself. Where Deneen claims that the ideas of the “Age of Revolutions” have failed, Pinker writes triumphantly that “the Enlightenment has worked.” Where Pinker notes that economic growth has skyrocketed, Deneen highlights that wealth is concentrated in the hands of the one-percent. Where Pinker argues that the scientific revolution has drastically improved our quality of life, Deneen points out that this has come at the cost of environmental degradation that now threatens the existence of the species. Pinker claims that progress has materialized because people are free to get what they want. Deneen denies that freedom consists in an abundance of lifestyle choices.

What Pinker and Deneen have in common, however, is the all-or-nothing approach they take to their topics. Pinker refuses to acknowledge the idea that some things have gotten better while others have gotten worse; his exaggerated optimism leads him to dismiss any potential reservations about progress as trivial. Likewise, Deneen ignores the elements of liberalism that made it initially appealing. And when he does acknowledge those better elements – constitutionalism, limited government, individual rights – he claims that they in fact predate liberalism and can outlast it: “protection of rights of individuals and the belief in inviolable human dignity, if not always consistently recognized and practiced, were nevertheless philosophical achievements of premodern medieval Europe.” We can have our cake and eat it too.

At their root, both stories rest on secularized forms of Christian faith—either a faith in progress and the realization of God’s design, or a conviction that what we have witnessed is the fall of man. Nonetheless, Deneen’s argument explains much more than Pinker’s. Deneen offers a philosophy of history that explains not only why things have gotten so bad, but why they are bound to get worse: liberalism can never succeed because its underlying assumptions and ideas are ill-conceived. While Pinker gives a wealth of statistics proving how great things are, these provide no guarantee that things will continue that way. Because it fails to address the possibility of increased bloodshed, inequality, social disintegration, and climate catastrophe, his argument is unlikely to persuade anyone who doesn't already believe the Leibnizian mantra that we live in the best of all possible worlds.

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Of course, Deneen doesn’t actually believe that liberalism has failed. It has not collapsed, which is why Deneen feels compelled to deal it a death blow. In fact, he indicates that without any intervention it is possible that liberalism could continue for quite some time. In his view, things could get much worse, and he indulges in speculation of a future “deep state” imposing liberal order by fiat despite a lack of popular support. This is why, perhaps counterintuitively, Deneen so forcefully tries to convince readers to reject liberalism.

He has two main arguments. First, while liberalism presents itself as a neutral system, it has actually sought to remake the world in its own image. It was founded on a reinterpretation—indeed, a whole new definition—of liberty and of the human person. Deneen bemoans the fact that while freedom for the pre-moderns meant virtue and the capacity for self-government, freedom now means liberation from all arbitrariness that determines us without our choosing—including liberation from authority, culture, tradition, and nature. Human beings are defined as fundamentally autonomous creatures, animals driven above all by self-interest. One consequence of this is that all human relationships—familial, neighborly, communal, and religious—are only legitimate if they are freely chosen. As a result, liberalism “teaches people to hedge commitments and adopt flexible relationships and bonds” and ultimately destroys the forms of unchosen attachment that hold communities together. Liberalism appeared to work for so long because it relied on pre-liberal resources to maintain a moral and cultural consensus, but over time it wore away these bonds without being able to replenish or replace them. Deneen holds that market mechanisms only function when local customs and cultures check the selfish desires of individual actors. What we are witnessing now is the triumph of depersonalized market relationships and the decline of any checks on corporate greed. Without these norms, the state enters to forcibly sustain order. All that is not restrained by law is permitted, rendering law the only tool that remains to guide conduct. In the absence of behavioural standards, Deneen claims, the only body that can combat the conflicts that arise is the state.

This leads to Deneen’s surprising next point: individualism and statism actually depend upon and reinforce one another. Having shorn communal and institutional ties that once offered sustenance, people are forced to turn to the state in times of need. Deneen views the main political options in the United States, embodied by the orthodoxy of the Democratic and Republican parties, as two sides of the same ideological coin – as merely two different forms of liberalism. He heaps scorn on both the Left and the Right. While so-called conservatives express hostility towards state expansion, they consistently turn to the state in order to create “free markets” and destroy all traditional norms that might prevent the market’s penetration into the life of a community. Like Bernard Harcourt's The Illusion of Free Markets, he demonstrates that the market is a political creation that always required political and administrative regulation. In reality, today’s conservatives—from Paul Ryan to John Bolton—are classical liberals. And while progressives claim that an expansive state is the ultimate protector of individual liberty, Deneen notes that they seek to limit the role of the state when it comes to personal and sexual autonomy. Ultimately, both camps only further contribute to individual fragmentation, and both fail to address deregulation, globalization, and soaring economic inequalities. For all Americans who celebrate choice, political options in the Land of the Free start to seem meager.

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If liberalism has failed, Deneen suggests that one possible outcome is to replace it with another system. So what comes after liberalism? His solution is a form of localism, focused on sustaining culture within communities, fostering “household economics,” and creating forms of self-governance that include greater civic participation. Deneen proposes that we return to the land, grow our own food, and find small communities of like-minded others. In short, we should live like the Amish. It’s ultimately just a nominally secular version of what Rod Dreher calls “the Benedict option,” a social opt-out for Christians to maintain their faith by forming intentional communities and removing themselves from mainstream society.

Following such a forceful critique of the Western social order, Deneen’s alternative is underwhelming. But perhaps that’s the point. Deneen wants to avoid giving us a prescription. He evinces a profound scepticism of any pure theory that claims to tell us how to live, and instead seeks forms of life that originate in the creation of new traditions. “The impulse to devise a new and better political theory in the wake of liberalism’s simultaneous triumph and demise is a temptation that must be resisted,” he writes. “The search for a comprehensive theory is what gave rise to liberalism and successor ideologies in the first place.” Instead, what we need is not a better theory but better praxis.

And yet for someone so adamant about escaping the clutches of ideology, Deneen imputes a great deal of agency to liberalism. In Why Liberalism Failed, it is liberalism – and not any particular writers, politicians, or social reformers – that drives history. Deneen writes as though liberalism has its own beliefs, executes its own plans, and takes its own actions. We are all liberalism’s victims, he claims. But where are its perpetrators?

This is why Why Liberalism Failed fails. Liberalism is not an agent. Nor is it a coherent idea with a unified form, but rather a series of ideas and political movements that evolved over time. Deneen presents its failure as inevitable—a result of its inner contradictions—and makes the current moment seem predestined from liberalism’s creation. He does this by overstating the importance of autonomy as the singularly liberal value, and by collapsing what were historically distinct demands for freedom into a single doctrine. In the process, he collapses diverse thinkers into a single monolithic progression from the past to the present. He believes, rather anachronistically, that thinkers ranging from Luther and Hobbes to Machiavelli and Rousseau were all working to establish liberalism, an idea which would have been foreign—if not outrageous—to most of them. Freedom from religious persecution, from foreign domination, and from arbitrary rule are all distinct demands. While later demands for freedom built upon the successes of earlier struggles, our current world was not determined at the outset of modernity.