History Has Begun:
The Birth of a New America
by bruno maçães
oxford, 248 pages, $29.95
Is liberalism giving way to something new? The most notable contemporary case for postliberalism, Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, has four tacit assumptions: First, America is in decline. Second, liberalism is responsible for this decline. Third, liberalism is collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions. Fourth, Alexis de Tocqueville’s nineteenth-century diagnosis of American democracy’s innate tendencies remains applicable and confirms assumptions one, two, and three. The excitement of reading History Has Begun, by the young Portuguese writer and intellectual Bruno Maçães, is that he rejects all four of these assumptions while still claiming that liberalism is giving way to something new.
Liberal ideas and institutions promise to increase individuality. Tocqueville argued that this push for individuality ended up leading only to greater conformity. Maçães cheekily holds that Tocqueville is wrong about this, as he is about nearly everything. Maçães argues that liberal individuality in fact leaves men free to create new world-historical realities. So as liberalism has taken root in America, it has produced not decline but dynamism. The push for creativity opens up a new epoch of world history. Old liberal ideas and institutions that would hinder individual creativity are tossed aside. America has chosen creativity over liberalism. Liberalism does not fail; it is left behind.
History Has Begun is an ambitious work. Sometimes rambling but always provocative, it sifts through American popular culture and intellectual life to offer an eclectic analysis of what America is. At its best, the book is a political-theory version of Rocky: A young intellectual, Maçães, challenges a venerable heavyweight, Tocqueville, to see who better understands America’s innate tendencies. Unlike Rocky, Maçães clearly loses the fight. But his effort is commendable and his argument worth understanding.
Maçães believes that America inclines toward postliberalism in a way that Europe does not. Drawing on Oswald Spengler’s idea that civilizations should form a coherent whole, Maçães argues that America and Europe are diverging in their attitudes toward individual creativity. Because of its experience with Nazism, Europe is fearful of creation. “Living in the grip of its ghosts,” Europe has “lost the heart to be fully free.” It would rather cling to its stagnant liberal ideas and institutions. Americans, who ostensibly do not live in the grip of these ghosts, are moving into a creative civilizational phase. America and Europe are now in tension. The tension is resolved by regarding America as a new, non-European civilization. “America,” Maçães writes, “is meant to outgrow Europe and create its own distinctive path.”
Whereas Tocqueville sought to temper individuality’s excesses and studied aspects of American society that did so, Maçães takes the opposite course. He studies aspects of American society that embrace individuality’s excesses. Maçães valorizes a canon of distinctly American thinkers, such as William James and Ralph Waldo Emerson, who argue that Americans should cut themselves off from Europe because Europeans, obsessed with moderating individualism, only limit American potential. The implicit promise of American society is to create new things unconnected from the old, a future that is altogether decoupled from the past. The unique character of American individuality means that Americans possess a world-historical creativity no longer possible in Europe.
Perpetually restless, Americans chafe against those who dictate acquiescence. They balk at shallowness and revolt against conformity. Unlike Tocqueville, Maçães is not interested in assessing the quality of these ways of life and whether they satisfy the restless souls of Americans. Instead, he views these ways of life solely as productions or creations, piling one upon the other. America becomes what he calls a “society of stories,” of artificial creations, narratives, and fantasies. “The possibilities are endless.” American politics, then, is a kind of theater where these different possibilities are staged, often at the same time. When one show ceases to entertain, Americans flip to another.
As the metaphor suggests, one force driving postliberalism is technology. A quintessentially American invention, television teaches Americans that a good story looks like a good movie. Americans live “like movie characters, lost in many different identities and relaxed about their ultimate truth or meaning.” For Maçães, America’s recent political history can be told as a deepening spiral of life imitating television. Watergate brought a drama right into the home through its televised proceedings, providing Americans with a cast of heroes and villains. Reagan discovered that as a professional actor he had been perfectly trained to play the role of president. Clinton could play a new, different role each day. Twenty-first-century liberals learned what politics should look like from The West Wing, and the Obama administration ran the White House to that script. Trump, in turn, ran his White House like a reality TV show. Of course, neither reality TV, nor Aaron Sorkin scripts, nor Hollywood movies are true. But that is the point: In American life, the more one indulges creativity, the less truth matters. Politics are “post-truth.”
Rather than rail against the embrace of unreality as a sign of American decay, Maçães cleverly argues that this is the new source for American power, contending that “the fantasy is destined to win” and that “the age of world building has begun.” This impulse is so powerful that Maçães concludes on a cautionary note. Mindful of international or inter-civilizational conflicts, he contends that Americans must learn to create worlds with others. “World history is not written from a single point of view,” he advises, reminding Americans of their defeats in Vietnam and Iraq.
For Maçães, the sphere of foreign policy appears to be the only realm that limits American creativity. He fails to grapple with how American religious practice, primarily Protestantism, limits American creativity. Understanding this is Tocqueville’s great strength, and it is where Tocqueville scores his knockout blow over Maçães.
For Maçães, the multiplicity of American religious sects is reducible to the American will to create, with its casual attitude toward what is real. American religion is epiphenomenal to American voluntarism. By contrast, for Tocqueville, the explanatory key to American creativity and liberty lies in American religion. It “must be considered as the first of their political institutions; for if it does not give them the taste for liberty, it singularly facilitates their use of it.”
For Tocqueville, American religion cultivates the individual’s opposition to shallowness and lowered goals, while at the same time teaching the spiritual self-discipline necessary for a rightly ordered use of liberty. The distinctly American thinkers on whom Maçães draws, such as James and Emerson, are better understood through this lens. They are exemplars not of an unchecked American voluntarism, but of American religion’s Tocquevillian dynamic, which couples individual personal pride with spiritual self-discipline. If Maçães is right that these thinkers disclose something particular about America, it is not because they point in the direction of a world-creation that leaves liberalism behind. They instead indicate the innate potential of Americans to re-discipline themselves in order to achieve nobility. In Tocquevillian terms, America’s internal impulse is not toward creativity; it ebbs and flows between creativity and constraint, between the world-creation made possible by liberalism and the self-discipline that limits it.
Perhaps, however, this ebb and flow between liberalism and counter-liberalism has collapsed, because American religion has collapsed. In this case, the limitations on the creative impulse drop away. Tocqueville would be obsolete.
Maçães could, bluntly but crudely, double down on this secularist thesis, assuming that American creedalism is coming to an end. But as his warnings on American foreign policy indicate, his considered position is subtler. Though it now takes a different form, American religion persists. It underwrites the temptation to take creativity too far. For Maçães, American elites were drawn into the defeat in Vietnam thanks to their ideological anti-communism, a “religious obsession.” The neoconservatives responsible for the invasion of Iraq made the same mistake. American religion has not disappeared. By combining itself with the extreme egalitarian strand of ideas that sprang from the Enlightenment, it has been transformed.
This argument evinces the most glaring flaw of History Has Begun. Both it and the “end of history” thesis must hold that less moderate nineteenth- and twentieth-century versions of Enlightenment ideologies are no longer relevant. At best they are mere “ghosts.” Yet if the past four years have taught Americans anything, it is that the chattering classes live entirely in the grip of these shades. They earn their living much as do Maçães’s Europeans, warning of resurgent fascism whenever some challenger to their preferred political order dares to arise.
This is one sign of the extent to which Americans remain reliant on European ideas. Labeling all competitors “fascist” is an old strategy of that most resilient of modern European ideologies, Marxian progressivism. In altered form, mixed with American religion, this ideology has come to dominate the upper echelons of American civic life. Far from escaping the deadly spiral of Enlightenment ideology, we have reentered it.
The persistence of Marxian progressivism within our civilization suggests one foreboding dynamic. As the dominant ideology repeats its old strategy, seeking to discredit and destroy alternatives, it redefines the public sphere as an arena for conflict, a war of extermination against one’s ideological foes. Europe’s past is now America’s present. Conflict, not creativity, is our destiny. For all his insight, Maçães does not grasp this. He is not a wartime consigliere.
But the fact that America remains coupled to Europe also allows Americans to explore how the full breadth of Europe’s inheritance can help them. There has been no “end of ideology” or “end of history.” Just as we cannot assume that Marxism or liberalism has been superseded, we cannot assume that pre-Enlightenment or counter-Enlightenment alternatives have been rendered irrelevant. Here, Maçães is right but for the wrong reasons: We really do have the capacity to create new worlds. But we cannot create ex nihilo. Forging a better future will require learning from the past.
Nathan Pinkoski is a postdoctoral research fellow at St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto.