Has Liberalism Failed? We Should Hope Not
The years following the populist earthquakes of 2016 have seen much soul-searching among the establishment class. Countless articles, books, and panels have made everyone an expert on the “rise of populism.” But most of the answers put forward offer only surface-level analysis of our present discontent. This is not so for Patrick Deneen’s widely discussed Why Liberalism Failed. The book is an antidote to the shallowness that so often characterizes our discourse about what ails much of the West. Deneen’s thesis is simple, yet profound: “Liberalism has failed—not because it fell short, but because it was true to itself. It has failed because it has succeeded.”
But if Deneen’s argument is essentially correct, his success may also end up leading to failure. If liberalism is failing and there is indeed a post-liberal horizon, it may be far more dystopian than what it is replacing. Deneen presents liberalism as an ideology that emerged in a vacuum, rather than under particular historical and philosophical circumstances. But pre-modern Christian ideals and liberalism are more interconnected than he would have the reader believe.
The liberalism that Deneen attacks is a modern project, one that, while having connections to the pre-modern world, is ultimately “a novel political philosophy that arose in distinction to premodern forebears…the achievement of liberalism was not simply a wholesale rejection of its precedents, but in mases attained its ends by redefining shared words and concepts.” This story usually begins with Machiavelli, who urges us to forget the “imaginary republics” of Plato and Augustine and focus on the here and now. But this is hardly the only approach to the history of political thought. Another school takes a contrary view and sees important continuities between pre-modern and modern political thinking. Deneen fully acknowledges that “some scholars regard liberalism simply as the natural development, and indeed the culmination, of protoliberal thinking,” but rejects this approach and thinks the radical break thesis “has considerable warrant.”
This undersells the strength of the continuity school. Deneen cites one of the best recent works of this tradition, Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism. The book can be boiled down to the claim that “liberalism rests on the moral assumptions provided by Christianity.” Principles central to liberalism, especially universal human equality, are inseparably tied to the ontological revolution that began with Jesus and Paul.
Christianity emerged in a pagan world where inequality was built into the understanding of the social and moral order. The paterfamilias was the absolute head of the household, with complete control over all other members, including the legal power to kill his relations. Individuals were subordinated to the collective interests of the family. Christianity challenged this. Roman norms and law assigned a specific role and place to individuals, defined by their relationship and duties to the paterfamilias. In the Christian/Pauline message, “we see the emergence of a new sense of justice, founded on the assumption of moral equality rather than on natural inequality.” All individuals, no matter what their social standing, from the slave to the emperor, were equal in the eyes of God. Salvation had nothing to do with social status or familial heritage; grace was a gift that was accepted individually, not communally. This transformation was so radical that Siedentop calls Paul “the greatest revolutionary in human history.” So radical were its implications that it took centuries to fully emerge, but by the end of the Middle Ages it was complete.
Siedentop’s argument is part of a long, often neglected liberal tradition. His 1979 essay entitled “Two Liberal Traditions” sketches out a picture of the “other” tradition of liberalism, the French one, which he contrasts with the Anglo-American one. The Anglo tradition treats individuals as atomized agents and uses abstract thought experiments like the state of nature and social contract to make analytic arguments for liberalism. The French tradition, which includes thinkers like Benjamin Constant, François Guizot, and Alexis de Tocqueville, understood modern liberalism as having emerged though a complex historical process and centuries of development. Siedentop revives and updates this approach. For Siedentop, “the fundamental or root concept of liberalism is equality, and its commitment to liberty springs from that.” This egalitarianism begins with the Pauline revolution, and works itself out over a millennium into what becomes liberalism.
It is not just liberalism’s defenders who have understood this. Friedrich Nietzsche attacks liberalism precisely because he sees it as a form of secularized Christianity, a religion that he calls “the most disastrous form of arrogance so far…people who were not noble enough to see the abysmally different orders of rank and chasms in rank between different people. People like this, with their ‘equality before God’ have prevailed over the fate of Europe so far, until a stunted, almost ridiculous type, a herd animal, something well-meaning, sickly, and mediocre has finally been bred: the European of today.” Christianity is the great leveler of man: it reduces nobles to the same status as peasants and raises up peasants to the status of kings. Nietzsche attacks Christianity precisely because it undermined the inegalitarianism of the pagan world. That liberalism’s defenders and critics can agree on this points to a far more complex relationship between liberalism and its forbears than what the radical break thesis suggests.
Deneen’s message is at its core an optimistic one. He sees this deformed liberalism as collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions and a post-liberal polity emerging that’s far more conducive to human flourishing. But if we understand liberalism as having inescapable Christian egalitarian roots, then what comes after may end up being far worse than what it is replacing.
It is difficult to understate how important equality is to liberalism. But egalitarianism makes very little sense divorced from those premodern foundations. In purely materialistic terms, we are clearly not equal. There are massive intellectual, physiological, aesthetic, and situational disparities between people. What is most liberating (or oppressive) about the Christian message is that ultimately none of this matters.
In After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre asks us to imagine a world where a cataclysmic event blamed on scientists results in a backlash that destroys scientific knowledge and institutions. Eventually, an attempt is made to restore science, but only fragments remain, and the rebuilders are forced to reconstruct using only these limited artifacts, resulting in a reconstructed but barely recognizable resurrected science. For MacIntyre, our contemporary moral landscape resembles this reconstructed science. We engage in moral reasoning using the tools our ancestors did, but our moral language is so divorced from the foundations on which it was built that it is almost unrecognizable and nonsensical. This is what has happened to our understanding of equality. Untethered from a spiritual understanding of man, equality descended into a dangerous leveling impulse that continually came into conflict with the desire for absolute autonomy.
Resolving this will require either the restoration of the values that sustained liberalism or the complete replacement of our current worldview with something that sustains the radical autonomous impulse. Deneen warns that there can be no going back to a preliberal age. This is certainly true, but it’s worth considering that instead of abandoning the deformed parts of the contemporary world Deneen assaults, we may instead forsake what is left of the foundational principles of liberalism, like equality, and build a new political order that sustains profound inequalities. This new worldview may end up resembling “technological paganism.” The leveling tendencies of progressives are already being met with pushback, not only from those who want to restore a healthy egalitarianism, but also from those who want to dispense with it entirely.
The desire for complete autonomy is closely connected to the Baconian project of “mastery over nature,” which Deneen mentions frequently and suggests is a foundational part of the liberal project. Chapter four of Why Liberalism Failed discusses the relationship between technology and liberty, but it is here that Deneen may have been too optimistic. He rightly notes that “far from controlling technology for our own betterment, we find that the technology ends up either ruling or destroying us.” But he underestimates the power that technology holds over us and how closely related it is to the desire for total autonomy.
Modern technology has helped eradicate extreme poverty across much of the globe, but it has also amplified inequality by enabling contemporary elites to transcend limitations that, until recently, had created absolute limits on the scope of human life. The mostly secular technological elites of Silicon Valley who increasingly control every aspect of our lives cannot escape the transcendent impulse, and many are increasingly elevating technology to a quasi-religious role. Silicon Valley is a hotbed for transhumanism and the quest to transcend the natural limits of the human body, including death itself.
The great liberal champion Francis Fukuyama has written extensively about the threat transhumanism poses to liberal democracy. The danger, according to Fukuyama, is that “underlying [the] idea of the equality of rights is the belief that we all possess a human essence that dwarfs manifest differences in skin color, beauty, and even intelligence…if we start transforming ourselves into something superior, what rights will these enhanced creatures claim, and what rights will they possess when compared to those left behind?”
The kind of equality that Fukuyama alludes to cannot be sustained by a solely materialistic understanding of human beings, and a worldview that seeks to use technology to transcend our biological and physical limitations is actively impeded by it. The ultimate inequality would be the bifurcation of humanity into those who have the resources to indefinitely prolong death and those who remain mortal. This would be intolerable for a society that values universal equality, but in a world where these technologies are never going to be universally accessible, a transvaluation in which equality is sacrificed at the altar of progress may usher in a post-liberal era that in some significant ways resembles the pre-Christian pagan world. It would return humanity to an inegalitarian social order split between a technologically enhanced elite and everyone else.
Our quest for radical autonomy and desire to master nature may well lead to liberalism’s demise, but it is far from certain that what takes its place it will be conducive to human flourishing. Instead, the world may well replace the moral ideas that are still wedded to liberalism with new ones that sustain this technological paganism.
Deneen’s proposal should be very familiar to TAC readers, because he is essentially calling for the Benedict Option. But if this technological paganism emerges, those who retreat to these communities will not be left to themselves indefinitely. Pagan Rome could not openly tolerate Christians because they undermined hierarchical social structures like the paterfamilias and refused to acknowledge the emperor as divine. Why assume that in the brave new world these communities will not also be forced to bend the knee?
Deneen makes clear the that post-liberal polity “must eschew liberalism’s ideological dimensions yet be cognizant of its achievements and the rightful demands it makes—particularly for justice and dignity. The outlines of such a theory are already discernible, guided by liberalism’s own retention of essential concepts from a preliberal age.” But there is no reason to think that if there is a horizon after liberalism that it will be better than what it is replacing and retain the essential concepts Deneen defends. Liberalism rightly understood is a pluralistic philosophy that allows people of radically different worldviews to coexist in relative harmony. In a world as philosophically, culturally, and religiously heterogenous as ours, we have no alternative but to be pluralists. The failings of liberalism come from the distortion of foundational liberal values, not from liberalism itself. Liberalism’s critics must be careful what they wish for, lest they end up getting it.
Ben Woodfinden is a writer and Ph.D. student at McGill University, specializing in political philosophy.