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Why Liberalism Failed
by patrick j. deneen
yale, 248 pages, $30

Patrick Deneen asserts that liberalism has failed. He also asserts (in a recent article) that “the exceedingly narrow victory of Donald Trump may be understood as the last gasp of a dying conservatism that has been destroyed by American liberalism.” If liberalism has failed, it has taken conservatism down with it. These are not questions for Deneen. They are the verdicts of ineluctable fate.

In virtually every area of contemporary life, Deneen sees only bleak prospects: “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.”

In other words, liberalism has not actually failed. It has succeeded, but Deneen thinks its success is the harbinger of its failure, and he thinks that more and more people will turn against it in search of an alternative which, disturbingly, the rise of populist sentiment signals: “Civic unhappiness is mirrored in economic discontent. Citizens are more likely to be called ‘consumers,’ yet the liberty to buy every imaginable consumer good does little to assuage the widespread economic anxiety.”

There is indeed dissatisfaction with our current situation, but if Americans are not quite content with liberalism and individualism, they do not generally enthuse over proposals to alter radically the political and social structure. Deneen thinks this is changing: “Marx once argued that the greatest source of economic discontent was not necessarily inequality but alienation—the separation of worker from product and the attendant loss of any connection with the goal and object of one’s efforts.”

Liberalism, like all “isms,” encompasses a lot of intellectual and political territory. For Deneen, it refers comprehensively to the Western political tradition for the last four centuries. He approves of some elements of the liberal tradition of Locke and the American founding only to conclude that these have now been lost. He refers to the ever-expanding administrative state, the rise of a meritocracy in which only the rich enjoy the privileges of the old liberal tradition, and the alienation of the rank and file from a distant government. Whatever was once good in our liberal tradition has been lost.

But Deneen is ready to move past liberalism—and against it. He underscores the need to regain “the ability to do and make things for oneself—to provision one’s own household through the work of one’s own and one’s children’s hands.” A great many people in the world today do have the misfortune of having to provide for themselves through their labor and that of their children. Deneen romanticizes a life they want to escape and that we should not want to recapture.

He admits that direct attacks on the dominant liberalism have little hope of success. He prescribes instead experiments in small, communal arrangements which do not directly challenge the order. He is sympathetic to Rod Dreher’s “Benedict option.” He identifies a “growing hunger for an organic alternative to the cold, bureaucratic, and mechanized world liberalism offers.” This requires forming small, local communities in which a real liberty can be attained, as well as turning our backs on alienating forms of production.

Here Deneen joins a long line of American utopians. There are numerous utopian experiments in American history which claimed to be models that society at large would inevitably want to emulate. Deneen joins this way of thinking when he says:

It is likely from the lessons learned within these communities that a viable postliberal political theory will arise, one that begins from fundamentally different anthropological assumptions . . . [built on] the learned ability to sacrifice one’s narrow personal interest not to abstract humanity, but for the sake of other humans. With the demise of the liberal order, such countercultures will come to be seen not as “options” but as necessities.

Such sentiments echo the hopes of the Shakers, the Fourierists, the Owenites, and other social experimenters who have appeared throughout American history. What are these fundamentally “different anthropological assumptions”? The argument is that a change in social structure will encourage altruistic self-sacrifice to take precedence over self-interest: “The corrosive social and civic effects of self-interest—a disease that arises from the cure of overcoming the ancient reliance upon virtue . . . generates social anomie. . . . Social norms have deteriorated. . . . Among the greatest challenges facing humanity is the ability to survive progress.”

Deneen’s desire for small communities calls to mind Benjamin Constant’s argument that ancient and modern liberty are profoundly different. Ancient liberty meant that freedom was constituted in the privilege of participating in the civic life of the polis, that public life was higher than private life; modern liberty, emphasizing that we are by nature free, equal, and independent, means that one can opt out of politics in favor of representative government, giving priority to the private life over the public life. In other words, we have come to understand ourselves as free individuals looking for opportunities to make something of ourselves for ourselves. We may share a way of life, but it is much looser and more diverse. Constant saw that to synthesize the modern understanding with “polis life” is impossible. At the same time, Constant knew (as did the American founders and Tocqueville) that indifference to the public life was also dangerous. He expressed the hope that education would continually remind those devoted to individual liberty that they must not neglect public affairs, which maintain the background conditions that make the pursuit of individual liberty fruitful.

Deneen is certainly right that there is today much talk of community and widespread desire for us to get along with each other, to accommodate each other, and to moderate the ideological rigidities which distort our politics. That is a far cry from “polis life.” As Constant recognized, very few people today want to engage in this kind of participatory liberty. As Oscar Wilde said of socialism, it takes too many evenings.

Deneen wisely recalls a point made by Tocqueville and Robert Nisbet: Society requires meaningful intermediary associations within which people can experience fruitful common purposes. Without these associations, we risk exalting the private life while inadvertently relinquishing more and more regulatory control to central government, expecting in return only the satisfaction of material interests. The ancient emphasis on moral virtue offers a basic constraint on uncontrolled, immoderate assertion of individual liberty. But neither Tocqueville nor Nisbet rejected the modern expectation that wealth and virtue can coexist, that growth in the standard of living can actually support improvement in the way people interact with each other.

Deneen’s argument might be more compelling if he were to acknowledge achievements of modern liberalism: the abolition of slavery, the enfranchisement of women, the revolution in medical science leading to reduction of infant mortality and increasing life expectancy, a rising standard of living on a global scale (the positive aspect to globalization), the breakdown of aristocratic hierarchy. How much of this Deneen might expect us to risk losing he never makes clear. Does he think we could retain these achievements in the cultural alternative he envisions?

For an academic, every critique of society must contain a critique of the university, and Deneen is no exception. He is right that there are increasing numbers of academics who are bored with the traditional role of teachers and scholars, who reject Max Weber’s important distinction between lectures and speeches, who endorse Marx’s view that the task of philosophy is not to understand but to change the world. Yet I think he goes too far in saying that the whole ambition of the academy is to liberate the young from all restraint.

There are plenty of half-baked, dangerous ideas passing through the academy. The current tendency to constrain students (and faculty) to various ideological projects does not celebrate individual autonomy. The attack on the First Amendment is troubling evidence of this. Deneen surely does not associate himself with this, but he needs to consider that his critique of liberalism, not all that different from theirs, will seem to vindicate their version of constraint against his. His voice deserves a hearing in the academy. This depends on defending significant features of the liberal tradition.

Deneen is eloquent in his invocation of the classic tradition of liberal arts education, reminding us of who we are and what we must defend. These aims are not dead; not all have abandoned or forgotten them. We are not at the end of liberalism, nor should we be enthusiastic for the onset of “post-liberalism,” what Deneen calls “liberty after liberalism.” One reason to be skeptical is that we do not have a clear idea of what liberty after liberalism would actually mean, nor what sorts of political institutions would supplant those on which we still must rely. Deneen visualizes a world purged of its current defects. This may appeal in the abstract, but historical change seldom produces gains without losses. Deneen says that “a five hundred–year philosophical experiment” has run its course, that we can build “anew and better.” Over the last century and a half, we have heard numerous such claims, but the results are not reassuring. Deneen invokes ancient tradition—in order to advocate a radically different and untested future. It is worthwhile to assess the advantages and disadvantages of liberalism, but we should be attentive to both, not forgetting our achievements.

Timothy Fuller is professor of political science at Colorado College.

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