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What Do We Do After Liberalism?

The political scientist Patrick Deneen argues that the inequality and social dislocation we’re living through now are a product of liberalism, by which he means not the philosophy of the Democratic Party, in particular, but the philosophy of the Western world and its market democracies. Excerpts:

Liberalism, as the name suggests, sought to liberate people from all the institutions and relationships that – in the view of liberal thinkers – had held people back from achieving the fullness of their potential, and thereby benefitting society through their inventiveness and creativity. They argued for the diminution of membership to a form of marketplace choice that individuals could enter and exit at will, reserving always their options for future revision – where they would live, what they would do, whom they would marry (or not), who they would be.

This empowered the “rational and industrious” while exposing the “querulous and contentious.” The structure of society was rearranged to standardize, rationalize and universalize this arrangement, and the liberal State became a guarantor of this rearrangement, everything from supporting “internal improvements” (infrastructure) to promoting a national and then global marketplace, from subsidizing America’s automobile culture to forced provision of birth control. The nineteenth-century’s heavy progressive hand in the form of its eugenics policy had been disgraced by the encounter with National Socialism, but a rationalized effort at empowering the strong has remained at the heart of liberalism from its very outset.

Today many are apt to conclude that growing evidence of “income inequality” or the division of the nation (and the world) into ever-more perfectly sifted “winners” and “losers” is a mistake or departure from liberalism that liberalism can fix. “Progressive” liberals – often educated at elite institutions of higher education, which have become one of the main institutional conduits for the sifting of the winners from the losers – bemoan the inequality, even as they flock to one of a half-dozen cities of the world where they live at great remove from those who have lost in the meritocratic sweepstakes, and live lives that have far more in common with their elite “conservative” political opponents (classical liberals) than with those whose lot they pity, but in no way seek to share.

Deneen cites the economist Tyler Cowen’s new book Average Is Over as a critically important contribution to the way we think about America’s future (though you should not assume that this means Deneen agrees with him). Cowen sees the country settling into a Third World-like social and economic arrangement in which elites live in cities and run everything while Everybody Else lives in favelas and are kept in line by bread and circuses. The ideology of meritocracy will be used to justify this arrangement. It’s not so much inequality that characterizes the new settlement — we have always had material inequality with us, and always will — as it is the attitude of the elites towards the rest: they’re on their own, and their fate has nothing to do with the elites’.

It’s the Ayn Randization of America. Deneen’s point is that this is not happening in spite of liberalism, but because of it. More:

In the world that Cowen describes coming into being, we see the full flourishing of a different vision, in which to the greatest extent possible our fates are disconnected, especially encouraged by the disassembling of the institutions and social forms that were devised to link the fates of the strong and the weak.

Today many of the communal forms of life that might once have been thought to link the fates of the strong and weak are attenuated or all but dissolved. There has been extraordinary geographic sorting, a result of extensive educational sorting (even President Obama sends his daughters to the Sidwell Friends School). We are engaged in the human equivalent of strip mining, identifying “rational and industrious” young people in every city and town and hamlet through standardized testing, extracting them for processing at one of our refining centres (universities), and then excreting them now as productive units of economic production to be conveyed to an hub of economic activity while leaving behind a landscape stripped bare of talented and industrious people that God thought wise to distribute widely.

For a graduate of one of the institutions where I teach or I have taught – Princeton, Georgetown and Notre Dame – to return to one of these strip-mined places would be an indication of failure. How striking a contrast to the life led by one of my favourite Minnesotans, that transplanted son of Chisholm, Minnesota – Archibald Graham, better known as Archie “Moonlight” Graham of “Field of Dreams” fame. In spite of the fact – or, rather, because – he held a medical degree, he spent fifty years in Chisholm where he served the children of the Chisholm schools and every Saturday could be found in his office offering free eye exams to poor children and giving away eyeglasses that he collected from townspeople. A scholarship in his name is still offered to two graduating seniors from the Chisholm High School.

I dare say that, were Doc Graham growing up today, he would have settled in one of five cities and there would be no scholarship in his name after he died. Once every town in America had its own Doc Graham, but in the world described by Cowen, you can be damn sure that the future Doc Grahams will be extracted from the crowded favelas, never to be seen again.

Read the whole thing. Note well that Deneen concedes there are no plausible competing models to liberalism currently on offer, and whatever would succeed it may well be worse. But saying, “It could always be worse” is not a sufficient response to the challenges posed by late liberalism.

Deneen’s essay is challenging on a number of fronts. As a reader of Dante, I am struck by how the world of atomizing liberalism described by Deneen resembles Dante’s Inferno. In Dante’s Paradiso, the mutual and joyful interdependence of others is characteristic of heaven; utter and eternal solitude is what it’s like in Hell. In Paradiso, there exists a kind of inequality (this is dealt with in the episode with the nun Piccarda), but it is explained by saying that God desires harmony, not uniformity. In heaven, all are equally blessed, but not equally positioned — and to be united with God is to accept His will in that regard. All the blessed in Paradiso live with the good of all the others foremost in mind, because they are filled with divine love.

We are obviously not going to recreate Heaven on Earth, but Paradiso is a model of social harmony in which all souls understand themselves as inextricably linked to each other, and none able to fulfill his own proper destiny without love for all others. Dante says that if we on earth saw ourselves as God sees us, and lived as God wants us to live, this is how we would do it. He wrote Paradiso as a political exile, and within a polity in which elite-led factions were tearing each other to bits, destroying the peace and order that everyone depended on to thrive.

Dante, of course, was no modern liberal, or a liberal of any kind (he prescribed monarchy as a cure for Italy’s political strife). Liberalism wouldn’t begin to emerge for centuries yet. But it’s interesting to consider how humane Dante’s ideal of political order is compared to our own. A politician who offered a vision sounding like Dante’s would be written off as a socialist loon, or maybe just a loon, period, because there’s nothing in Dante prescribing the redistribution of wealth. Besides, I don’t think any one of us care to hear our politicians gassing on about love. The point, though, is that in Dante, the Good is a communal good, not the sum total of individual goods. If I’m reading him correctly, Deneen says that liberalism by its very nature makes it impossible to think in those terms.

It’s a difficult problem. As you know, I am far more likely to side with Pat on the politics of all this, but my experience of the last three years has given me a more nuanced perspective. I’ll be talking about this in my forthcoming book about Dante, but for now, I’ll say that I can’t see how the ideal state of mutuality exists outside of a shared and lived commitment to faith — the Christian faith in particular, given its central focus on humility, repentance, and forgiveness. (I don’t mean to deny the power of other faiths to bind in this way; I just don’t know enough about them to say.)

Mutuality only approaches justice when everyone recognizes that they live in a bond of love — a bond into which they were born, not necessarily chose. Yet human nature being what it is, many, probably most, of us would use that bond pridefully, to manipulate others into doing our will. I am grateful that I came along in a time in which it was not only thinkable, but possible to leave my home and go out into the world. If I had not been able to develop my own life free from the immense gravity of my father, I would have been crushed by it. I don’t at all mean to say that my father was a bad man, only that his personality was so strong, and his will so absolute, that resisting it required me to leave for a long time. If you’ve read Crunchy Cons or Little Way, you know that the central political question in my mind is also a spiritual one: how to be at Home in the world.

I came back to my hometown, but things did not turn out as I thought they would. Complicated story, one I’ll tell somewhat in How Dante Can Save Your Life. The main lesson I learned is that it is folly to expect any kind of utopia in this world. I knew that from the beginning — that is Conservatism 101 — but it’s surprising to dig deep, beneath one’s conscious knowledge, and find that what one thought one believed is not really what one believed.

What I came to see is that traditionalism separated from love becomes a rigid and inhumane ideology — but this is also true of liberalism. There is no political system or arrangement that can make people be good and just. We can only better our odds.

Sorry that these thoughts are incomplete. I’m still working through a lot of this. I think my own political development goes like this:

1. Young Rod: Liberalism is great, freeing me of the tyranny of roots.

2. Older Rod: Liberalism is seriously problematic, making it very difficult to form and to sustain deep roots.

3. Even Older Rod: Liberalism is seriously problematic, but so is everything else, including traditionalism. We can’t continue as a society to live under liberalism, because it’s tearing us apart, and creating exactly the world Pat Deneen identifies. But all the alternatives seem worse.

To me, the answer, insofar as there can be an answer, is to be found in a more humane and, well, liberal version of traditionalism. But what does that mean? Is it even possible, or is that utopian? After all, tradition that can be endlessly modified is no tradition at all — but a tradition that can never be modified eventually ossifies and dies. Is it possible to think beyond liberalism and individuality, and individual choice as the summum bonum? If not, how do we create structures in the world that make it easier to choose the Good? How can we know the Good in a condition of radical pluralism?

My sense is that we have to seek our answers within the possibilities dictated by liberalism, insofar as there are no more compelling alternatives on offer. Benedict Option stuff, this is.


about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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