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Against the Deformations of Liberalism


Why Liberalism Failed
by Patrick J. Deneen
Yale University Press, 2018, 248 pages

Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed is a blistering critique of contemporary American culture and its foundational philosophy of liberalism. Deneen’s surprising argument is that “liberalism has failed because it succeeded,” and that the bankruptcy of liberal ideas has resulted in unsustainable forms of political community. In what follows, I register my sympathy with many aspects of Deneen’s argument, especially his description of certain sociopolitical problems we face in America. I do not, however, view his overarching argument about liberalism as successful, and I want to engage it as a friendly critic in order to help prepare the way for something more constructive.

On a continuum running from sober political philosophy to political manifesto, Deneen’s book leans uncomfortably toward manifesto. This tendency is evident in part from the tone:

The most challenging step we must take is a rejection of the belief that the ailments of liberal society can be fixed by realizing liberalism. The only path to liberation from the inevitabilities and ungovernable forces that liberalism imposes is liberation from liberalism itself. . . . A better course will consist in smaller, local forms of resistance: practices more than theories, the building of resilient new cultures against the anticulture of liberalism. (18)

This is a call to action, even if it is not, à la Marx, a call to total revolution. And as with most manifestos, its rhetorical appeal depends upon the author’s free use of hyperbole (“the only path to liberation”), and upon dark predictions that pretend to certainty (the “inevitabilities” that liberalism imposes), and finally upon a plan for escape to a better, if vaguely articulated, future (“building resilient new cultures”).

Perhaps manifestos have their place. But the price, at least in this instance, is a lack of patient, even-handed analysis. Because Deneen’s purpose is fundamentally a call to action—a call which necessitates a clear and compelling case against liberalism—he is willing to dispense with nuance in his rhetorical presentation and also, evidently, in his own effort to understand philosophically what liberalism is. This context makes it impossible to evaluate liberalism in morally graduated terms.

The Problem of Defining Liberalism

As common as the term “liberalism” may be in political and intellectual discourse, it is no easy thing to define. My own view is that it is best defined in relation to the underlying historical development of which it is a part, one that began with the Reformation and is still unfolding today. This development lacks a name, but it is the effort of varied groups of political actors, at different points in time, to free themselves from any and all hindrances that seemed inimical to human flourishing. These hindrances were not perceived all at once. Rather, the more menacing ones were sensed first, and these obscured the view of lesser ones. But like waves crashing upon a shore, once one hindrance was removed, another came into view.

The pattern in which the modern quest for freedom has developed, in nine consecutive waves, is the “order of existential need.” That is, people perceived their need for freedom in specific areas and in sequence. The religious believers who in the early sixteenth century initiated this development valued nothing more highly and regarded nothing as more needful than freedom of religious belief and practice. Personal salvation required it. But as religious freedom and toleration began gradually to take hold in post-Reformation Europe, other hindrances to individual flourishing came to light, again in order of existential need. Let me list the nine waves in which freedom has been sought, along with a characteristic theorist or two who advanced the cause.

  1. Freedom from religious persecution (Luther)
  2. Freedom from foreign domination (Machiavelli, enshrined at Westphalia)
  3. Freedom from civil war (Hobbes)
  4. Freedom from arbitrary rule, tyranny (Milton, Locke)
  5. Freedom from government interference in the economy (Smith, Say, Cobden)
  6. Freedom from rule by another, i.e., by some person or group that does not include oneself or one’s representative (Publius, Rousseau, Kant)
  7. Freedom from tyranny of the majority (Tocqueville, Mill)
  8. Freedom from exploitation by privileged sub-political groups
    a.  in the social sphere (Mill)
    b.  in the economic sphere (Hobhouse, Dewey, Croly)
  9. Freedom from biological necessity (Nick Bostrom and transhumanists)

The word “liberal” first entered European political vocabulary around the year 1812, in connection with the Liberales, the Spanish constitutional party that resisted the restoration and established a constitutional monarchy instead. But this is relatively uninformative, since the idea of liberal constitutionalism (without the word itself) was a mainstay of political thought (wave 4) long before 1812. What actually happened was that in the early nineteenth century, words such as “liberal” and “liberalismus” came to be used as a way of referring in the first instance to a contemporary moment in the broader movement of modern freedom but also, eventually, to the manifold of political concepts that had been developed since the early sixteenth century. In other words, “liberalism” came to refer to the amalgam of current freedoms: religious, national, domestic, constitutional, and economic; and it would continue to be the word of choice for future waves of freedom, no matter how much the new freedoms entailed actual or implied tensions (what Deneen calls “contradictions”) with earlier ones.

For most of his analysis Deneen uses the word “liberalism” to refer to the entire modern development (see, e.g., p. 24). This is fair enough, given proper precautions: Luther, Machiavelli, and Hobbes were not themselves liberals, no matter how much they may have contributed to the achievement of specific freedoms or prepared the ground for later ones (as Deneen acknowledges, pp. 26–27). I agree with Deneen that the entire modern quest for freedom can be fruitfully analyzed and to some extent criticized, though I would not be solely critical and am in fact profoundly grateful for the many freedoms we enjoy.

Yet two methodological flaws mar Deneen’s analysis and weaken his conclusions. One is a tendency, visible sometimes though not always, to dehistoricize liberalism, to view it as a single political philosophy. This he does by collapsing all nine waves into a single body of doctrine.

A political philosophy conceived some 500 years ago, and put into effect at the birth of the United States nearly 250 years later, was a wager that political society could be grounded on a different footing. It conceived humans as rights-bearing individuals who could fashion and pursue for themselves their own version 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. (1)

But this is misleading, because liberalism was not a political philosophy; it was in fact a slowly evolving history of diverse political ideas and movements. Nor was liberalism “conceived 500 years ago,” as if its whole trajectory were the brainchild of Luther or Machiavelli. Liberalism was also not in any simple sense the political philosophy of the American founding. As many scholars have demonstrated conclusively, the founding was also suffused with Christian, common law, and classical republican influences. More problematically, to present the entire development of liberal thought and practice as a conscious “wager” is to engage in a kind of historical make-believe. Certainly particular theorists hazarded guesses. They assessed potential obstacles to human flourishing and believed their preferred solutions were on track. But “liberalism” is not a wager.

This is closely related to a second methodological weakness. Deneen bestows upon liberalism something approximating human agency, treating it as if it were a coherent—if misdirected and sometimes sinister—historical actor. Here Deneen does not dehistoricize so much as hypostatize.

Liberalism is less visibly ideological [than fascism and communism] and only surreptitiously remakes the world in its image. In contrast to its crueler competitor ideologies, liberalism is more insidious: as an ideology it pretends to neutrality, claiming no preference and denying any intention of shaping the souls under its rule. It ingratiates by invitation to the easy liberties, diversions, and attractions of freedom, pleasure, and wealth. (5)

Liberalism is a cunning enchantress to whom Deneen imputes an agency beyond that permitted by poetic license. The result gives the false impression that liberalism is a self-conscious actor with a plan, a plan that many Americans deem overwhelmingly successful, but which Deneen regards as a failure.1

Has Liberalism “Failed”?

Taken together, these two methodological defects lead to arguably false conclusions. One is that liberalism, this dehistoricized and reified construction, has failed. Deneen believes it has failed because its wager did not pan out. “Liberalism promised to displace an old aristocracy in the name of liberty; yet as it eliminates every vestige of an old order, the heirs . . . regard its replacement as a new, perhaps even more pernicious, kind of aristocracy” (7). Liberalism promised limited government but it gives us extensive surveillance; it promised “no arbitrary power” but gives us an unaccountable bureaucracy; and so on into the domains of economics, technology, and education: “Nearly every one of the promises that were made by the architects and creators of liberalism has been shattered” (2).

But if liberalism is not a wager—not a series of “promises” but an accumulation of discrete historical movements attempting to secure various kinds of freedom—then liberalism cannot break promises or fail in its wager. Some other account is needed to explain why once cherished freedoms have gradually been curtailed. We must ask: in pursuit of what ends have modern citizens and their governments been led to attenuate or negate some of the earliest liberal freedoms? Progress will not be made on this question by supposing that liberalism is a political philosophy free from historical contingency or a coherent political actor with a propensity to break its own promises.

Another highly questionable conclusion is Deneen’s claim that the reason liberalism has failed is “not because it fell short, but because it was true to itself” (3). He writes,

It failed because it has succeeded. As liberalism has become “more fully itself,” as its inner logic has become more fully evident and its self-contradictions manifest, it has generated pathologies that are at once deformations of its claims and yet realizations of liberal ideology. (3)

I will return to Deneen’s invocation of “liberal ideology” below. For now, allow me to note the extent to which Deneen’s ultimate practical conclusion (abandon liberalism) depends for its force on this flawed argument about liberalism’s death by success. Only if liberalism is the victim of its own success, if it somehow has an “inner logic” that is fundamentally flawed, would repairing liberalism be impossible. And only if it cannot be repaired must it be rejected.

Yet liberalism is not and never was a wholly coherent body of ideas with an “inner logic,” any more than it was a list of promises scribbled down by a set of “liberal architects.” It cannot therefore be guilty of “self-contradictions,” though it can certainly exhibit specific tensions insofar as different freedoms, sought at different points in time, prove to be in some respects incompatible. An example is the desire for freedom from state interference in the economy that was sought in wave 5 and the freedom of wage laborers from oppression by factory owners sought in wave 8b. One movement opposes state regulation; the other favors it. Yet both can coexist in attenuated form—and there is no “contradiction,” as if liberalism were a logical proof.

Liberties vs. Liberalism-as-Ideology

By noticing the defects in Deneen’s method and the eccentricities of its results, we are prepared to reject some of the book’s macro-level conclusions outright. Liberalism (as in the modern quest for freedom) has not failed, though it has produced many outcomes that are unsatisfactory.2 It has also produced many that are quite desirable. Nor does liberalism have an inevitable fate that will be determined by “its own success” or the “bankruptcy of its underlying political philosophy.” Liberalism is the product of many minds considering different underlying problems but sharing a love of human freedom and a hatred of oppression and injustice. Because it has been constructed, partly consciously, partly not, it can also be reconstructed and its weaknesses potentially alleviated. This means we are not compelled, pace Deneen, to abandon liberalism in search of an altogether different way of life. There may be some way to keep the good aspects of liberalism while addressing the bad. This would of course be worth attempting, since liberal freedoms are, at their best, rather precious.

Once Deneen’s macro conclusions are put to the side, much of his mid-level analysis appears quite compelling (primarily in chaps. 2–7). For instance, one can agree with Deneen that Hobbes’s anthropology of radical individualism is unrealistic and problematic when made the basis of political reasoning, and yet observe (contra Deneen) that Hobbes’s anthropology is not the only modern one and that Americans are not doomed to embrace it simply by virtue of living in a liberal regime (see 36, 38, 77–78, 112). One can agree that American elites benefit from social structures such as family that are tragically crumbling among the lower classes, without laying the blame on some sinister “liberalocracy” (134, 150). One can agree that American liberals are sometimes destructive of the environment and yet recognize that liberalism itself fights against this (15, 109). One can agree that liberal education in America has fallen on hard times while recognizing other causes for this besides liberalism’s supposedly crude view of liberty (111, 117–19, 125). We can discern the unhealthy and at times frightening relationship Americans have to technology without laying the blame solely or chiefly on liberalism (102–3, 108). And we can certainly lament with Deneen the loss of “culture as a set of generational customs, practices, and rituals that are grounded in local and particular settings” (64) without having to believe that cultural “deracination” is the necessary result of liberalism. The analysis of the symptoms is excellent; the attribution of all our woes to liberalism is too simple and, ultimately, unconstructive.

The problem with Deneen’s overemphasis on liberalism as a single causal factor is that it blocks the way for a more searching analysis that might actually shed light on some of the sociopolitical problems he describes. If liberalism is not the problem, what is? Without trying to be exhaustive, let me mention two potential areas of investigation. One is something Deneen touches upon fleetingly but does not develop. It is the gradual growth (like a cancer) of an ideological approach to liberal politics in place of liberal politics proper. Most of the nine waves described above constitute genuine freedoms worth fighting for, and we would not want to give up what was achieved. (Which of those freedoms, after all, would Deneen like to renounce?) But gradually over the course of that development individuals in the West began to fetishize freedom as such, and to seek it in overly absolute terms. This is not liberalism per se, but an ideology of complete individual autonomy that is indeed unsustainable. Part of this ideology entails the belief that the quest for freedom will, eo ipso, lead to human flourishing—a belief that is not supported by experience. Part of it is also the belief that whatever kind of “oppression” has been most recently sensed (gendered bathrooms, for instance) must also be the most pressing work of politics to redress. The irrationality of this belief is revealed in the fact that the order of modern freedoms was patterned according to existential need. Thus the most recently discovered oppressions are arguably the least, not the most, fundamental. Finally, there is the ideological tendency to view all our freedoms as absolute rights and to fail to see the extent to which freedoms exist in tension with each other and must therefore be somehow judiciously balanced. Absolute rights cannot be the subject of political deliberation and balance, because by definition they cannot or should not be curtailed.

Such ideological deformations of liberalism seem to account for much of what Deneen finds troubling. Ideology, not liberalism, is the force that has been fiendishly tearing down traditional institutions and mediating structures, enlisting technology in an effort to overcome nature (including human nature), and promoting individualism and voluntarism to an extent that renders stable political life impossible. But if the ideology of liberalism is different from liberalism itself, perhaps we should consider trying to do something about the ideology rather than calling for the end of “liberalism” and our attendant liberties.

Another place to look for some of the causes of American disorder is in the paradoxical dynamics of freedom itself. Anyone who studies freedom carefully will soon discover that it is a highly equivocal good. On the one hand, we almost always choose it, given the opportunity, especially when its denial in any given area takes on the character of oppression and injustice. On the other hand, freedom does not correlate in any linear way with human happiness and flourishing, and seems rather to foster self-indulgence, irresistible temptations to vice, and general dissatisfaction. This is a profound problem that cannot be fully canvassed here. But the question that it prompts is what, if anything, can be done about it.

Perhaps Deneen’s idea of practicing classical and Christian virtues in small, local, communities will help. I do believe that Americans in general need to recover a richer understanding of liberty coupled with responsibility, self-restraint, and practices of virtue. One of the benefits of living in a free, if decadent, liberal society is that Deneen and his readers are at liberty to make such experiments. But by blaming all our ills on liberalism and insisting that its underlying political philosophy is uniformly bankrupt, I doubt that the members of these local communities will do much to improve our political lives. Liberalism is not dead. Rather, it is a set of ever-imperfect political beliefs and practices that hold together awkwardly at best, even when they are not being pushed to excess by ignorant ideologues. Can American liberalism be improved? I do not know. But if it can, it will require political philosophers and statesmen who can heighten Americans’ awareness of the contingency of the freedoms we cherish, of the genuine ingredients of human flourishing, and of the political practices required to make the most of equivocal goods like freedom.

This review essay is a contribution to a symposium on The End of Liberalism. Additional reviews can be found here, here, and here.

1 Deneen is critical of the “Whig interpretation of history” (27), but his analysis shares some of its methodological distortions. Deneen supposes, anachronistically, that thinkers as diverse as Luther, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, were “building liberalism,” something none of them had ever heard of and which some would have contemptuously rejected.

2 On one level, Deneen knows that liberalism hasn’t failed. That is why he must encourage readers to reject it. And he speaks of it often as abiding force to be reckoned with (see, e.g., 180–81).

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