Why Liberalism Failed, Patrick Deneen, Yale University Press, 248 pages

Notre Dame professor Patrick Deneen has written a book vitally important for understanding the present crisis in Western politics. If this work had appeared two or three years ago, it still would have been of great significance, but coming as it does in the wake of Brexit, Trump, and other shocks to the liberal consensus, its relevance is further enhanced.

But a warning is in order: American conservatives may be cheered by the appearance of a book entitled “Why Liberalism Failed.” But, in the sense in which Deneen is using “liberalism,” most American conservatives are actually liberals. Deneen’s use is in fact the one common among political theorists, many of whom argue that America does not have a conservative and a liberal party. Rather, it has a right-liberal party, focused on free markets and free trade, and a left-liberal party, focused on social issues. The United States, according to this view, has never had a “church and throne” conservative party such as those seen in many European countries.

This article appears in the January/February 2018 issue of TAC.

A second point that may puzzle some readers is the implicit assertion of the title: Deneen did not name the book, “Has Liberalism Failed?” or “Will Liberalism Fail?” His title—“Why Liberalism Failed”—is more bold. Elite opinion continues to hold that liberalism (in the above-noted political theory sense) is not only succeeding marvelously but is really the only political system even worthy of consideration or respect. (Consider the enthusiasm for U.S. military adventures against any regime judged insufficiently liberal, or the lack of hesitation shown toward efforts to “reform” traditional societies to bring them “up” to liberal standards, despite the lip-service liberalism pays to multiculturalism.) In the face of such consensus, one may ask how Deneen can blithely assume that liberalism’s failure has already occurred. But, as we shall see, he has very good reasons for his conclusion.

Deneen notes that liberalism is one of the three great ideologies to dominate modern politics, along with communism and fascism. The latter two have been vanquished as serious competitors to liberalism, which had an advantage over them: “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.”

The two liberal parties in America compete by pointing to two seemingly opposed but factually reinforcing trends. The right-liberal Republicans warn against the dominance of society by the state, while the left-liberal Democrats point to the tyranny of the market as the greatest threat to human freedom. Thus each party inspires its partisan members by fear of the threat the other party represents. But despite appearances, both parties, in fact, jointly work to expand both the state and the market.

As Deneen writes, “The insistent demand that we choose between protection of individual liberty and expansion of state activity masks the true relation between the state and market: that they grow constantly and necessarily together… modern liberalism proceeds by making us both more individualist and more statist.”

Even if one accepts Deneen’s conclusion about this relationship between state and market under liberalism, why should we think that liberalism is failing? Isn’t our great material wealth, our increased longevity, and relative safety evidence that liberalism is succeeding, whatever its downsides might be? Deneen, well aware of this argument, has an effective counter—namely, that liberalism has been “making progress” similar to a meth addict, who has been burning up his body’s reserves, but responds to warnings about his behavior by pointing out how many times he has cleaned his room and dead-headed the roses this week. Those activities are fine things, but they are being carried out at an unsustainable pace. As Deneen puts it: “Liberalism has drawn down on a preliberal inheritance and resources that at once sustained liberalism but which it cannot replenish.”

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In identifying the false anthropology at the heart of the liberal venture, Deneen cites Hobbes as a pioneer of this mistaken view. He notes that for Hobbes “the state is charged with maintaining social stability and preventing a return to natural anarchy….Human beings are thus, by nature, nonrelational creatures, separate and autonomous.”

Proto-liberals such as Locke and Jefferson and modern liberals such as Mises and Rawls have all started from a similar place: we are first and foremost human atoms who only need to “contract” into social groups insofar as it is to our advantage. As Deneen notes, “Even marriage, Locke holds, is finally to be understood as a contract whose conditions are temporary and subject to revision…” Or, as Mises put it, “The fundamental facts that brought about cooperation, society, and civilization and transformed the animal man into a human being are the facts that work performed under the division of labor is more productive than isolated work and that man’s reason is capable of recognizing this truth.”

Anyone of a religious bent would surely object to the idea that humans only get along with each other because they realize output will be higher if they do so. But one need not be religious to see that Mises is spouting nonsense: humans (and proto-humans) lived together in tight-knit social groups long before they could have been calculating the advantages of the division of labor. There never were “isolated…self-sufficient individuals” with which they could compare their “output” as members of a group. Isolated humans were dead humans, not self-sufficient humans. And our chimpanzee, bonobo, and gorilla relatives also live in tight-knit social groups, as do many other animals.

Deneen makes a particularly important, and commonly misunderstood, point in the following passage: “The ‘Noble Lie’ of liberalism is shattering because it continues to be believed and defended by those who benefit from it, while it is increasingly seen as a lie, and not an especially noble one, by the new servant class that liberalism has produced…But liberalism’s apologists regard pervasive discontent, political dysfunction, economic inequality, civic disconnection, and populist rejection as accidental problems disconnected from systemic causes, because their self-deception is generated by enormous reservoirs of self-interest in the maintenance of the present system.”

Often, when it is pointed out that it is in the self-interest of commentator X to take view Y, someone will respond, “No, I am sure that X really believes Y!” But that response misses the point: when it is in our self-interest to believe Y, very often we will not merely feign belief in Y but talk ourselves into actually believing Y. What’s more, often we will convince ourselves that we believe it for the most admirable reasons. This self-deception is crucial to the maintenance of our self-image as good, modern “free thinkers,” while this “free thinking” has led us to precisely those views that most help us get ahead in life.

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Someone having reached this far into my review might suspect Deneen of being a reactionary fantasist seeking a return to some earlier “golden age.” But he is not, nor does he deny liberalism’s accomplishments. In pondering how we might proceed, if we accept his diagnosis of liberalism as a failed ideology, he writes, “First, the achievements of liberalism must be acknowledged, and the desire to ‘return’ to a preliberal age must be eschewed. We must build upon those achievements while abandoning the foundational reasons for its failures. There can be no going back, only forward.”

This passage highlights the danger in this desire to “go back.” I explored this danger in my book on the decline of the Roman Republic, Oakeshott on Rome and America. I wrote that, while for several centuries Romans simply respected and followed the mos maiorum (the way of the ancestors), when their traditions began to break down there arose a brand new traditionalist ideology. Whereas Rome’s traditions previously had been followed in a natural and organic way, which allowed for their organic modification as circumstances changed, once they began to break down a faction arose demanding that they be turned into rules that must be followed without deviation (and thus without allowing any organic response to changing circumstances).

This is an error that has snared too many modern conservatives. They wish to return to the 1950s, or the 1920s, or the 1890s, or the 1780s, or whatever other period they admire. Such a return, as Deneen clearly recognizes, is impossible. We can try to preserve the best aspects of earlier times, but we cannot ever recreate them. After all, even if we could, given that the circumstances of those earlier times brought about our present crisis, wouldn’t we just repeat the exact same progression that has led to the current situation, the one that nostalgic conservatives deplore?

Deneen, it is true, acknowledges the lessons of the past and recognizes that not all wisdom is contained in the latest trendy soundbite from some esteemed pundit. But he argues that we must concede that the present is always novel in many ways and that the past provides no blueprint for how to act now. Indeed, the very idea that we could act according to a blueprint is itself a rationalist conceit.

Perhaps most importantly, Deneen recognizes that what is most needed are new practices and not simply new theories. The basic error of all three modern ideologies is the idea that practical life can be conducted on a theoretical basis. This is like turning to professional mathematicians for their street savvy or avant-garde pianists to play the town square dance. Deneen’s conclusions track with TAC writer Rod Dreher’s call for a new “Benedict Option.” Both argue that those aware of the breakdown of the “liberal world order” must first and foremost strive to create practical, not theoretical, alternatives to the liberal society crumbling around them. Nevertheless, this book provides a sound theoretical basis for their doing so, and that makes it must reading for anyone who recognizes our ongoing crisis.  

Gene Callahan is the author of Economics for Real People and Oakeshott on Rome and America. He has taught philosophy, economics, mathematics, and computer science at the university level, and holds a PhD in politics from Cardiff University.