Why Liberalism Failed
by Patrick J. Deneen
Yale University Press, 2018, 248 pages
Patrick Deneen is certainly not the first critic of liberalism to notice that it has something of the character of religion. He is particularly adept, however, at detailing one of its most striking faith-based features. Critics of religion, especially liberal ones, like to point out the irrational tendency of believers, in the face of disaster or social collapse, to believe ever more intensely in their doctrine the more reality seems to fail to conform to it. The explanation always has to be that our faith is not intense enough, our practice not pure enough.
One of the consistent themes of Why Liberalism Failed is that liberalism, as it has succeeded in its constitutive aims, has brought about the failures that threaten its viability. “The most challenging step we must take,” Deneen remarks, “is a rejection of the belief that the ailments of liberal society can be fixed by realizing liberalism.” Religiously, liberalism exhibits a gnostic character, always measuring present failures against a projected, more perfect future, and thus blinding its adherents to its own role in causing those present failures. Deneen’s book provides one of the best and most compelling cures for this illusory faith.
The Original Myth
At the core of the liberal faith is the mythical image of the state of nature. This observation may seem anachronistic, given that the “state of nature” trope enjoyed a limited lifespan in political philosophy, from about 1651 (Hobbes’s Leviathan) to 1755 (Rousseau’s Second Discourse). The pioneering institutionalizations of liberalism, at least in the United States, occurred after and in the wake of Hume’s devastating critique of belief in a natural original state by which we could take our political bearings. Today no one accepts the historical accuracy of the portraits of primitive life upon which Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau constructed their legitimating theories.
Denizens of liberal states do, however, commonly think that the function of law is to impose limits on unlimited individual freedom; that these limits are legitimate because they are founded on a kind of implicit consent; and that this legitimating consent is based on the calculation that such limits will contain individuals within explicitly defined spheres of mutual non-harm. This understanding of freedom as wide-open choice with an originally unlimited scope, of law as a limiting imposition (ideally a minimally limiting one) upon that unlimited free choice, and of consenting individuals as the fountainhead of all legitimacy, is precisely the political anthropology conveyed by the state of nature myths, especially those of Hobbes and Locke. Thus the abandonment of the state of nature as a hypothetical historical beginning point brings into greater visibility its continuing function as an orienting myth.
Theorists have found other arguments for some of the typical features we associate with liberalism, such as limited government, separation of powers, elected representatives, economic freedom, and legitimation by individual consent. By Deneen’s account, however, these are all secondary phenomena. The core dynamic that defines liberalism is a program of state-sponsored individualism—the attempt to produce, by political and often coercive means, the abstract, rights-bearing and contractually consenting individuals described in the state of nature myth.
This feat of social engineering is achieved by disembedding members of communities based upon tradition and custom, liberating them into a wider sphere of individual choice. The first wave, or classical liberalism, attempted to liberate those Locke described as the “industrious and rational” to take part in the Enlightenment project of mastering nature through science, technology, and economic growth. The second wave, or progressive liberalism, sought to relieve “persons of genius” (as Mill put it) from the burden of customary opinion and moral judgment, so they might freely cultivate their unique individuality and serve as guides to the rest of us in the unleashing and enjoyment of our full human potential. In other words, the two alternatives recognized in American political discourse as “conservative” and “liberal” both enlist the state to buffer and disencumber expressive individualism from the limiting demands placed upon it by communities grounded on principles other than express consent.
Real human beings, before they have been remade by liberalism, are shaped by communities with their own inherited “moral ecology,” observing accepted expectations of conduct which conduce to cultivating liberty as classically understood: self-control, self-limitation, and self-government, developed in tandem with a sense of responsibility to one’s fellow community members. They have a shared history; they live in relation to a place and respond to its local character by learning to respect natural limits. Traditional liberal education cultivates just such classical liberty, providing critical perspective on what is accidental in one’s cultural inheritance without inspiring fundamental hostility to it.
The state of nature myth depicts detached individuals in an abstract space without any history, exercising their individual reason to figure out how to maximize their own desires while still living in peace with their equally self-regarding neighbors. This image acts as a cultural solvent. It is aided in this destructive task by the reduction of “culture” to sets of factitious beliefs and practices shorn of any relationship to nature by which they could mediate a respectful human relationship to a given order. Culture becomes understood as a form of expressive play with therapeutic benefits for this imaginary anomic individual in need of bearings. This hollow notion of culture is easily traded for the orienting principles of liberalism: economic competition in the bewitching landscape of global techno-copia.
The Eternal Return of Shame
The liberal understanding of freedom centers on the unimpeded satisfaction of one’s desires. Traditional communities use shame to rein in the pursuit of desires that damage the solidarity and sustainability of human and natural ecologies. Liberalism began by removing shame from the unlimited desire to accumulate wealth, and has ended up discrediting shame altogether as a source of moral formation, while retaining it for other purposes. Shame works most effectively on those most ambitious to gain the respect of their community by the exercise of exceptional talents, and thus in most cases educates them to accommodate themselves to the community, to the benefit of everyone.
The exceptionally talented are precisely the ones Mill wanted to protect from shame, and that liberalism regards as the “natural aristocracy” whose ambition and talent it seeks to concentrate into elites based in ruling centers. Detaching their loyalties from local communities thick with inherited moral bonds, liberalism’s educational, economic, and political institutions redirect their loyalty to the state and market, which liberate them from and privilege them over their less dynamic peers. Grateful to the liberal market-state whose instruments they have become and whose contempt for traditional communities they now share, they gladly participate in the destruction of the culture, traditions, and moral community that give stability to the lives of the less gifted. What else can they do if they are to remain on the right side of History, whose necessary arc they themselves represent?
It is interesting, though unpleasant, to see how shame reappears in the “virtual communities” that have given themselves the task of policing the arc of progress. Certainly, shaming always harbors within it a tinge of cruelty, which is cause enough for the champions of “toleration” to reject it entirely. In healthy communities, however, shame and the fear of shame contribute something to moral education, fostering maturity and modeling responsibility for the good of the community. Online and media-driven “communities,” on the other hand, use shame in its most archaic and vicious form, to scapegoat the defenseless, channeling hatred toward one so as to shore up the sense of shared identity in the rest.
In some ways, both those who champion and those who bemoan internet-based identity groups as new models of liberal democratic order are correct. As Deneen points out, the phrase “liberal democracy” involves some sleight of hand. The adjective “liberal” is really the substance, whereas the noun “democracy” serves to grant legitimacy to the elite-producing mechanism of liberalism in the eyes of those over whom the elite rules. The state that the multitude staffs by means of periodic elections (which Aristotle rightly called an aristocratic mode of selecting rulers) claims, by virtue of these elections, to embody the consent of the governed, even though the representatives primarily serve elite oligarchic interests.
Online communities, even more than the state, are abstract spaces to which disembedded individuals can belong wholly on the basis of choice as expressions of their will. Thus they better fulfill the promise of liberal democracy to foster communities of expressive individualists. At the same time, they render null one of the safeguards Madison thought the “compound republic” of state and local governments provided against the violence of democratic factions. The dispersal of those who shared common interests was supposed to impede their easy communication and combination, limiting their capacity to do mischief while evading the rule of law.
Liberalism and the Loss of Limits
So far I have mainly summarized and expanded upon Deneen’s analysis. I would like also to point out some limitations under which I think it labors. Deneen’s critique seems constrained, to some degree, by the strictures that liberalism places upon public speech, and which one must observe in order to make such a critique accessible to a contemporary audience. These limitations manifest themselves primarily in the way Deneen talks about classical liberty.
Deneen consistently describes the classical account of liberty, whether moral or political, as an acceptance of the need for limits on desires and appetites. Though he mentions briefly the classical understanding of human nature in terms of a fulfillment to which we are oriented and which we attain in the practice of virtues, his argument for limits rests largely on the negative practical effects of trying to live without them—and primarily the effect of social dysfunction. This approach, however, implicitly accepts some elements of the liberal voluntarist anthropology Deneen wants to challenge. That anthropology sees limits as extrinsically dictated, as a socially demanded asceticism to which, if we choose to respect its dictates, we just have to “man up.”
The classical understanding goes deeper and is, I think, more appealing, insofar as it speaks to our love for what is true, good, and beautiful, and commends the orderly soul as a condition of and proper response to that love. A healthy culture attaches our hearts and minds to virtue and community by feeding such love and fostering such orderly souls. In spite of liberalism’s depredations of our souls, this classical understanding of our deepest desires shows many signs of retaining its power. It would be important for critics of liberalism, such as Deneen, to articulate why the “anti-culture” of liberalism cannot abide the illumination of reality by the light of such transcendental principles. Without such an account, the exhortation to virtue strikes the ear habituated by liberalism as mere moralism (or, as Nietzsche has it, nihilistic asceticism).
Deneen characterizes the desires that liberalism unleashes, and upon which restraints must be imposed, as “insatiable.” Certainly one can make a practical argument that trying to satisfy insatiable desires is folly, and hence that it is rational to accept limitations. The history of modernity, however, exhibits a relentless chafing against this kind of rational argument, from the Romantics to the transhumanists. Premodern Christian culture, I suggest, was better able to harmonize these two sides of human experience. Augustine simultaneously recognized the infinitude of our desire (which, he argued, could be met superabundantly in God) and the restraints required for the proper respect for and love of God’s created order and our place in it. Part of liberalism’s resistance to this harmonization of our desire stems from its inability to reconcile its adherents to suffering and death, encouraged especially by the aspiration to conquer both by means of modern science.
Liberal Disembeddedness and Christian “Otherworldliness”
Squeamish as it is about this aspect of Christian teaching, liberalism does not quite know what to do with traditional Christianity. Most often the tendency in liberal regimes has been to sentimentalize and privatize Christianity, and to recast it as one possible form of moral and social support for the pursuit of the liberal agenda. A more informed historical understanding, however, strongly suggests that Christianity brought about a revolutionary understanding of human life that was, in fact, necessary for the advent of liberalism itself. It is possible to understand this inescapable relationship of Christianity and liberalism in two very different ways.
If liberalism is to recognize Christianity as its indispensable predecessor it must, nevertheless, subordinate it to its own account of progress. The secular sociologist Louis Dumont, for example, whom many historians of individualism in Europe recognize as a key guide, argued that the “disembedding” of individuals from the earthly social whole by Christianity was a crucial precursor to modern liberal individualism. If that is the case, however, then the traditional Christianity Deneen wants to defend itself bears some responsibility for the disembedding of the individual for which he blames liberalism.
From a vantage point explicitly within the Christian tradition, this question takes on a rather different aspect, leading to troubling conclusions about the religious character of liberalism with which this essay began. For Christians, the “disembedding” that characterizes their existence is not individualistic, but draws them into a deeper form of belonging. Christians understand their community to be the body of Christ, and its practices as a means by which to enter deeply into God’s love. For Augustine, this manner of participation in the divine fulfills our longings and brings our nature to its fullest realization. Practically, it takes the form of belonging to and being reformed by communion with God and the saints, which Christians describe as “citizenship” in the city of God. It is this communion that sets limits to the claims political authority makes over our lives, and that provides us a sense of belonging to a real community that transcends our immediate sphere. At the same time, Christianity affirms the goodness of that immediate sphere and our duty to love it in its proper measure, as well.
This premodern Christian understanding of liberty involves limits, but directs those limits toward the higher love that they make possible. More fundamentally, however, the Christian account claims that we attain the fullness of our being only by giving ourselves over to participation in a higher, divine order of life and being that precedes us but draws us ever more deeply into it. It is the divine love that gives being to all things, and that inspires in us love for our neighbors, our family, the created world and especially our local bit of it.
The liberal disembedding mechanism, by contrast, detaches us from the local to deliver us over to loyalty to a state that grants and sustains our existence as individuals. It thus represents a perverse imitation of the Christian liberation. It seeks to substitute itself for Christianity’s communion and to replace this encompassing love with a foundation in distrust. Likewise it replaces communion with an emphasis on “respect” that takes the form of spheres of mutually exclusive rights, negotiated with the backing of the state’s threat of coercion. It resists acknowledging that Christianity might offer a higher principle of belonging, even while claiming to recognize Christianity’s right to exist within the liberal state.
These reflections go considerably further than Deneen wishes to take us, at least in this offering. Yet maybe he hints in something like this direction: Deneen’s concluding prognosis is that we have to engage in renewed practices of community before we can think anew about politics on the basis of what we learn in the experience. Perhaps what we will learn is to apprehend once again the transcendent ground that humanizes us.