If you thought the hathotic interview BBC4 journalist Cathy Newman conducted with Jordan B. Peterson was delightful train-wreck television, take a look at the review Jennifer Szalai published in The New York Times, of Patrick Deneen’s new book Why Liberalism Failed. The book reduced her to the same kind of ideologically-driven sputtering to which Dr. Peterson drove his interlocutor. For example:
Deneen says that the only proper response to liberalism is “to transform the household into a small economy.” Home may be where the heart is, but it can also be the site for homegrown prejudice, petty grievances and a vicious cruelty. Deneen is so determined to depict liberalism as a wholly bankrupt ideology that he gives exceedingly short shrift to what might have made it appealing — and therefore powerful — in the first place. With all its abiding flaws, liberalism offered a way out for those who didn’t conform to the demands of the clan.
Besides, nobody is truly stopping Deneen from doing what he prescribes: finding a community of like-minded folk, taking to the land, growing his own food, pulling his children out of public school. His problem is that he apparently wants everyone to do these things — which suggests he may have more in common with his caricature of a bullying liberal than he cares to admit.
What does “nobody is truly stopping Deneen” have to do with what Deneen wrote? It’s an emotional outburst from somebody who is really ticked off by Deneen’s book, and is going to throw everything she has at him to see what sticks. And yes, liberalism did and does offer a way out to those who didn’t conform to the demands of the clan — I’m a beneficiary of liberalism in that regard — but so what? Deneen argues in his book from the very beginning that liberalism has now failed, paradoxically, because it succeeded so very well in liberating the choosing individual from all unchosen obligations.
Szalai seems so panicked to defend liberalism — which Deneen, in her telling, not so much critiques as defiles — that she doesn’t give any indication that she sees any problem with what liberalism has become. For her — judging by this review — it’s mostly about protecting abortion rights and women in the workplace. She begins the review by puzzling over why a conservative like me and a socialist like Cornel West can both praise the Deneen book. Hey! Jennifer Szalai! Wake up and look at the world outside your University-of-Toronto-London-School-of-Economics-Manhattan-media bubble!
Anyway, she does touch on a single reasonable concern raised by some readers of Deneen’s book: what does he suggest replace liberalism? I’ve said before, and I strongly believe, that you can’t judge the validity of Deneen’s diagnosis by his failure to offer a clear, detailed solution. This is especially true given that the world liberalism has produced is one of radical pluralism.
For example, you can say, as a Catholic integralist would, that many of the problems in the Western world today come from a loss of shared cultural meaning and authority, without believing that Catholic integralism is either possible or desirable in 2018. In 1848, Karl Marx was right in some important ways about the social effects of industrial capitalism, but his proposed solutions were, as we know, catastrophic. As for postliberalism, it’s hard to know how we are going to restore the conditions necessary for healthy social solidarity. This is a problem that serious political thinkers of the Left and the Right are going to have to work on — and do so while subjecting their own prejudices to rethinking. You cannot have a market as free as ours, and a social order as permissive as ours, and still have a society that is stable and healthy over the long term. That said, it is difficult to know what would be acceptable to most people in our deracinated, secularized, pluralistic liberal democracy.
Fred Bauer’s take in National Review is much more insightful. Right here in these first two paragraphs, before you have any clue as to what Bauer thinks about the book’s claims, you learn more about the Deneen book than you do in the entire NYT review:
Why Liberalism Failed.
Deneen offers liberalism as the last survivor of the three major modern ideologies, the other two being fascism and communism. He argues that the quest for autonomy (to be independent and self-directing) is one of the driving forces of liberalism, which has come to define liberty as “the condition in which one can act freely in the sphere unconstrained by positive law.” This is in contrast to the classical view of liberty as self-rule and, thus, as “the learned capacity of human beings to conquer the slavish pursuit of base and hedonistic desire.” To Deneen, modern liberalism defines freedom as the absence of restraint, and takes attaining such a state as its primary purpose. The Right and Left — “conservatives” and “progressives” — might differ on what restraints should be dissolved, but both, he claims, make the liberal promise of autonomy a central goal.
Bauer doesn’t really write a review of the book, but works with its material to suggest a potential way out of the very real dilemmas of liberalism elucidated by Deneen. It’s a way of keeping the structure of liberalism while reforming it from within. Bauer calls it “The Tocqueville Option”. Excerpt:
The Tocqueville Option would nurture the institutional and procedural inheritances of liberalism in the service of other ends. For instance, traditionalist Catholics, the Hasidim, and the Amish might oppose the enterprise of radical autonomy from their own distinct perspectives, but they also all benefit from a political order that stresses pluralism and religious tolerance. Especially as secularists grow ever more intolerant, the faithful have an incentive to champion this nation’s abiding commitment to tolerance. One doesn’t have to subscribe to liberal modernity’s “joyless quest for joy” (to use Strauss’s phrase) in order to support free markets, democratic elections, and political freedoms. Unlike certain variants of postliberalism, the Tocqueville Option acknowledges that many elements of the liberal order are worth preserving, even if some of the premises of liberalism warrant correction.
Read the entire column. I don’t see how this is workable, though I wish it were, because I don’t look forward to living in whatever illiberal order is likely to follow liberalism. It’s not workable because in my view, we have lost the moral and religious commitments that undergird a real-world liberalism (as distinct from theoretical liberalism). But that’s another story.
You should buy Deneen’s book, even if you’re on the Left. The things he discusses in the book are real and serious problems — and neither Republicans nor Democrats know what to do about them. But they’re going to define our politics for the foreseeable future. You may believe that Deneen’s take misses the mark in important ways, but sooner or later, we’re all going to have to deal with the problems he highlights. People who believe that what we have now is going to last without a major breakdown are whistling past the graveyard.