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Can Democracy Save Us?


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

Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed is a well-argued critical dissection of liberalism, one of the most persuasive I have read in recent years. Deneen understands “liberalism” to be one of the three powerful and all-encompassing ideologies of modern times—the other two being fascism and communism—that “proposed transforming all aspects of human life to conform to a preconceived plan.” While its competitors have disappeared almost without a trace, liberalism has deeply penetrated the modern world, and its basic assumptions—that people are rights-bearing individuals, that a society is a set of agreements among such individuals, and that the political institutions originate and take their legitimacy from a social contract—have acquired the status of self-evident truths.

But dominance does not mean success. Far from it. What we observe today, Deneen argues, is a conspicuous failure of liberalism. This failure was, in a sense, foreordained by the essential defects of liberal ideology, particularly its erroneous view of human nature, of society, and of government. Let me survey four arguments indicating those defects before discussing what I see as the limits of Deneen’s account.

First, Deneen argues that the individualism which characterizes all varieties of liberalism is not, as it claims to be, the antithesis of collectivism and statism. What look like two theoretically contradictory positions turn out, in real life, to be mutually supportive and reinforcing. The more a society becomes individualistic, the more it is exposed to all kinds of collectivist ideologies and statist policies. As Tocqueville put it, the weakness of isolated individuals actually makes them more dependent. Further, in today’s liberal society, people look at one another less and less as individuals, and more often as representatives of the various “isms” which seem to be growing in number—chauvinists, feminists, sexists, environmentalists, fascists, and so forth. In fact, new isms pop up almost every day, diluting individuality into the collective identity of an ideological group. Since ideologies organize people’s minds and impose on them the language in which they articulate their interests, this phenomenon encourages governments to carry out heavy-handed policies to satisfy those interests. As a result, liberal individualism, which was originally intended to protect us against the group and the government, has made us vulnerable to the very forces which the liberals pledged to tame.

Second, liberalism has drawn too sharp a contrast between human nature and culture. In order to explain government as a contract, liberalism reduced human nature to certain simple and, it hoped, unchallengeable characteristics. Its picture of human nature has instead inspired a similarly reduced culture. To say, as Hobbes, Locke, and other liberal thinkers did, that human beings are mainly motivated by a sense of utility, or a desire for self-preservation, or similar drives, is a grossly one-sided picture of our nature—even a marginal one in the entirety of Western philosophy, literature, and religion. But while liberalism purports to make culture a realm of free choice, separate from this attenuated human nature, this view eventually forces us to regard people’s striving for goodness and beauty, their fellow-feeling, their search for the absolute, and many other things, as a mere costume we can put on. And since it is only a costume, we may just as well decline to do so without betraying human nature. Those who say that culture is external to human nature propagate what Deneen calls “anticulture.”

Third, again drawing inspiration from Tocqueville, Deneen argues that liberalism has never shared the classical and Christian sensitivity to human temporality. Because of its emphasis on human choice and liberation from tradition, the past is not a guide for the liberal man. Whenever he looks back or forward, he only thinks in terms of what he knows today. And what he knows today is very little, limited to a few worn-out clichés and contemporary prejudices. He never learns from the past, nor does he hold such learning in high esteem. This attitude makes him immune to the wisdom of experience, because experience is essentially cumulative: it links us to the achievements, thoughts, and sensibilities of those that came before us. Having isolated himself from the past mentally, a true liberal feels no obligation to preserve and develop what his ancestors have passed on to him in the form of trusteeship. What characterizes a liberal man is, in Tocqueville’s words quoted by Deneen, “brutish indifference” to anything that extends beyond his lifespan.

Last, writes Deneen, liberalism has lost—or rather, it has never had—a sense of place. The inherent placelessness of a liberal man can be traced, Deneen suggests, to the concept of the state of nature. Even though this notion was initially a thought experiment designed to highlight the natural rules of conduct prior to the contingencies of the political and cultural environment, liberalism started using this thought experiment as an instrument to transform reality according to its precepts. Individuals came to be thought of as bearing rights not in this or that community, but everywhere. In fact, being too much attached to or bound by one’s own community could jeopardize those rights. What was therefore needed, to protect and to make full use of the rights, was to be liberated from loyalties to one’s home, family, religion or country. When this happened, the results could be easily predicted. In psychological terms, it generated a feeling of homelessness and solitude; in anthropological terms, it meant the impoverishment of human existence.

In short, I agree that “liberalism has failed because liberalism has succeeded.” One should therefore not defend liberalism by saying that it was never tried, or tried insufficiently, or was derailed at a certain point, or distorted, or hijacked by non-liberals, or diluted by compromises. No, whatever could have been implemented of the liberal creed was implemented, certainly more than was the case for any other political creed, except those—like Communism and Nazism—that used murderous measures.

The Misplaced Hope of Democracy

Patrick Deneen’s account of the relations between liberalism and democracy, however, raises more difficult questions. In Why Liberalism Failed Deneen makes a suggestion that, to put it somewhat crudely, liberalism disarmed democracy and changed it into a sort of aristocracy in which a liberal elite took over and imposed liberal ideology. Moreover, this phenomenon was not an unexpected one, at least not in the United States. The Founding Fathers had already been playing with this idea, distrustful as they were of what they considered the whimsical nature of the demos. Deneen thus suggests that reactivating democracy and restoring the civic spirit, which Tocqueville long ago found and admired, should be a remedy to the ills of liberal rule.

What is problematic in Deneen’s thesis is not his account of the self-enthroned liberal aristocracy, but the role he hopes the demos will play. True, the liberal aristocracy considers the demos to be incompetent, unreliable, and therefore in need of more enlightened guidance. But to what extent is this otherwise negative opinion defensible? And if it is defensible, would democracy not be a part of the problem, rather than a solution?

In my view—and on this I part ways from Deneen—liberalism and democracy are allies rather than opposing forces, and what makes them allies is egalitarianism. Much has been said in political philosophy from Tocqueville onward about the opposition between liberalism and democracy, with liberalism representing liberty and democracy representing equality. But such a dichotomy is, to my mind, untenable. Liberalism, at least that founded by Hobbes and Locke, was much more about equality than about liberty. And every egalitarian society, whether liberal or democratic or both, formally or informally generates an elite with a problematic relation to the demos.

The first to point out this problem were the classical philosophers. Dissatisfied with their own democracy, they placed a lot of blame on the demos, which they thought both arrogant and malleable. Not only did they consider the demos uneducated, vulgar, and narrow-minded but also, and partly because of this, easy to manipulate. The demos, Plato said, was like a big and strong but unintelligent animal, possibly dangerous but, when taken care of by a clever guardian, able to be used effectively.

In the twentieth century, faced with mass societies under the sway of murderous demagogues and ideologies, thinkers on both the right and the left renewed these observations about the manipulability of the demos. But modern societies have also been enticed by less sinister forces—by sudden waves of political fashions, by radical chic and quasi-revolutionary sentiments, by collective enthusiasms and upsurges of collective hostility.

If we accept the ancients’ argument, we should not be surprised that the demos in democracy became attracted to liberalism. Since democracy is primarily a collection of practices rather than a complete set of ideas, it can be imbued with various ways of thinking. Liberalism was at hand and on the rise; it was clearly egalitarian and, at the same time, full of slogans about liberty; it was launching ever new crusades against ever new enemies of freedom and equality; it championed the idea of progress; it conferred more and more rights on groups and individuals from a legislative and judicial cornucopia, which is something democracy has been prone to do, as well. In view of all this, liberalism became an obvious reservoir of ideological content with which to gloss democratic procedures. As an indirect confirmation of this, one can note that, by and large, the demos never resolutely opposed the crusades of liberalism but instead went along with the social engineering that liberal elites imposed on societies through legislation and court decisions.

This account needs an addendum. It is not only the demos that has been perturbed by the weaknesses of its internal constitution, but the elites too. In fact, one can view the history of Western elitism, from early modernity until today, as containing a long series of tyrannophilic adventures. Elites have found most tyrannies attractive, particularly those that promised a systemic breakthrough, a shortcut to the future, or a radical social engineering in the name of progress. For the most part, they have drawn no lessons of self-restraint from their past flirtations with radicalism. In other words, the trahison des clercs has not been for the intellectuals a handful of isolated incidents, but a natural state of affairs. Even if humiliated, terrorized, and decimated—as happened in the most drastic cases—the elites never really parted with their amorous propensity for tyranny. Nor could liberalism change that tendency, because liberalism itself has a strong tyrannical streak: it is a theory which always places itself above all other theories and political programs, claiming for itself the right of being their critic, coordinator, and ultimate arbiter. For those who habitually fall for tyrannophilia, liberalism was a perfect new object of adoration, the more so that it was full of anti-despotic, but ultimately vacuous, rhetoric.

Everything I have said so far presents a rather gloomy picture. If the demos is easily pliable and the elites are often lured by tyranny, what is to be done?

The Implausibility of a Democratic Alternative to Liberalism

Let us go back to the four arguments against liberalism that Deneen so aptly formulated. If we treat them as an inspiration for a positive program, we may draw an obvious conclusion. In order to limit the influence of liberalism and to make democracy less liable to its chronic lapses, Deneen needs citizens who meet some, or preferably all, of the following four criteria: citizens (1) who are not “individuals,” that is, not self-contained members of an individualist society, (2) who are not “natural men,” that is, not reducible to simple, utilitarian characteristics, (3) who have a sense of history, and (4) who have a sense of place, both in its communal and metaphysical dimensions.

To be sure, these criteria set a high bar. What is more, it seems highly unlikely that there is a universally applicable strategy to turn all societies in this direction. Societies are different, having different histories and being determined by a variety of contingent factors. In some of them, the four criteria may be close to experience, in others fairly remote. This in turn may give some credibility to the observation—for which I have no proof except common sense—that popular opinion eventually corresponds to that of the elites. In other words, in a country where the elites have completely fallen for tyrannophilia—whether communist, liberal-democratic, or oligarchic—there is little chance that the demos will be radically different. And conversely, in a country where the demos is closer to Deneen’s desired criteria, the elites might also be more resistant to ideological temptations.

Those properties which make our existence more complete and, ourselves, less malleable—the properties which, in Deneen’s view, liberalism has neither understanding of nor respect for—may exist in a democratic society, but they have to be provided, to use a Marxist-sounding phrase, from the outside. Democracy may profit by them once they are there, but it cannot sustain them, let alone produce them. Democratic procedures will not make people less individualistic because they are essentially quantitative. Democracy will not reestablish a proper relation between nature and culture because democratic procedures, concerned as they are with political expediency, have no intrinsic way of respecting either. Democracy will not supply us with a sense of history because it is always about what is demanded and approved of here and now. And, finally, democracy will not give us a sense of place, because it is procedural and notoriously non-metaphysical. All the good things that make the citizen more resistant to the pitfalls of democratic practice come from other sources: from parents, teachers, books and art, social environment and practice, religion, mythologies, regional and national loyalties, and many other factors that are pre-democratic, both in the logical and in the temporal order.

A citizen should not be shaped his by participation in democratic structures alone, because these structures will make him increasingly dependent on the inner logic of the democratic conception of power, as well as on the ideologies that democratic politics easily assimilates. The problem, however, is that the qualities and the sources of inspiration which a democratic citizen needs come from outside the democratic world, but are dismissed by today’s democracies as anachronistic and dangerously undemocratic. Although this attitude does stem from the omnipresence of liberal prejudices, it is also true that these prejudices are easily reconcilable with the theory and practice of democracy.

Can a “Counter-Anticulture” Be Built?

How to strengthen the social fabric, and build what Deneen calls a counter-anticulture, is a most difficult question. Deneen writes from within the American-Tocquevillian democratic idiom, believing in the creative potential of household economics and civic self-governance. In short, he seems to have a confidence in a sort of a primeval democracy—that specifically American formation, on which America was built and which, he hopes, can be recreated in new conditions. This democracy, as I understand him, is not simply a set of procedures, but a way of life.

Within the European tradition, however, Deneen’s scenario has little chance of success. In Europe, the long arm of history is a very long one indeed: there are several strong nondemocratic traditions that continue to exert influence, and incline us not to organize our thoughts and actions in the language and habits of democracy. By “nondemocratic” I do not mean “antidemocratic,” but rather traditions that simply do not refer to democracy at all, and instead have their own language.

In my country of Poland, for example, Roman Catholicism has played a great role—spiritual, political, cultural—in a way that eludes all formulas elaborated for us by political philosophies, including liberalism and theories of democracy. It is not that Polish Catholicism has violated the separation of church and state; rather, that concept has been simply irrelevant in the history of Poland. Although religion clearly went beyond what we usually conceive as the religious domain, it never identified itself with the state and often opposed it, yet no state could ignore it. There have been several other traditions—not democratic, but not aristocratic either in the standard sense of the word—which do not fit into any ready-made pattern of politics. And it is these traditions—such as political republicanism or, on a cultural level, Romanticism—which have had a powerful influence on the Polish character and imagination, and which have helped the Polish people live through totalitarian regimes and foreign occupations. They still stand in the way of liberal anticulture, but we do not know how long they will hold.

I presume that in other European countries the long arm of history may carry different ideas and animate different sensibilities. Indeed, the seeds of a culture—richer than that offered by liberalism and democracy—however frozen and inactive they may seem, are still there, and they may grow and bear fruit sometime in the future. To assume that we Europeans are doomed to live in the arid world of liberalism until the end of time would seem, at least today, a somewhat hasty act of capitulation.

It may very well be that in America this long arm of history must have democracy as its central ingredient. Without democracy, American history would have been inconceivable. Deneen is convinced that American democracy is able to generate, from within and in accordance with its own rules, the means to cure its weaknesses and to deprive the liberal aristocracy of a monopoly. If he is right, and let us hope he is, this would probably amount to an epoch-making process, having a salutary ripple effect on the rest of the world. And it would compel skeptics like myself to modify our views of democracy.

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


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