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Linker, Liberalism, Deneen

Does classical liberalism have within it the sources of its own regeneration?

Here’s a good column by Damon Linker on Patrick Deneen’s hot new book Why Liberalism Failed. Yale University Press did not anticipate how popular this book would become, and is still rushing more into print. If you want to read it now, you have to get it on Kindle, though hardbacks are going to be available soon. Linker writes:

It’s the most electrifying book of cultural criticism published in some time, and it’s hard to imagine its radicalism being surpassed anytime soon.

I’ll focus here on Linker’s criticism of the book — objections that Linker concedes could be wrong, which, Linker writes, “is why it’s so important that people read and wrestle with Deneen’s important and deeply disconcerting book.”

Linker writes:

For one thing, Deneen’s pitch-dark pessimism about the present seems overstated. Steven Pinker’s data-driven optimism may go too far in the opposite direction, yet the fact remains that whether we’re talking about rates of literacy, poverty, disease, or incidents of war, life under liberalism appears to be considerably less hellish than Deneen’s rhetoric would have us believe. That doesn’t mean that the anomie from which so many of our discontented fellow citizens apparently suffer is illusory. But it might mean that it has other and more complicated sources than the supposed inner logic of liberalism.

That’s an important point. I don’t think Deneen denies, or would deny, that liberalism has  brought about many blessings. Indeed he says at the end that we must not deny the real achievements of liberalism. You have to keep in mind that Deneen’s core argument here is paradoxical: that liberalism has failed because it has succeeded at its task of liberating the individual from non-chosen constraints and obligations. Deneen’s is a variation of the classical argument that liberty is most essentially freedom for the exercise of virtue, not freedom from constraint.

Deneen’s book can be thought of as a meditation on John Adams’s famous remark that the US Constitution is inadequate to the governance of a people that is immoral and irreligious. Adams explained that the Constitution’s structure could not restrain a people that has given itself over to indulging the passions immoderately. A liberal government “of, for, and by the people,” whose individual liberties it protects, is only sustainable when people practice self-restraint — a habit of the heart that cannot be compelled by government. If you want to keep liberalism — by which Deneen means the basic model of Western politics and social organization of the last 200 years or so — then you have to ground it in principles that cannot be derived from liberalism itself.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident” is a statement of faith, because it is by no means “self-evident” that that “all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Deneen’s contention is that liberalism is degenerating to the point where — to put it crudely — more and more people see no real purpose to life beyond shopping and sex. If you want to see in fiction the kind of dystopia Deneen foresees, read the novels of Michel Houellebecq.

In my reading, Deneen doesn’t look around and see a dystopian hellscape fully upon us now. What he, as a political theorist, observes is that liberalism has lost the capacity to say no to the various forces of dissolution that are, in his view, destroying it.

Linker’s other, “more fundamental objection to Deneen’s argument” is this:

The claim that so many of our problems have their sources in the 16th and 17th centuries only appears compelling when one accepts the assertion that liberal modernity is an intentional project set in motion by a handful of philosophers. It’s truer to the historical record to conclude that the lineaments of the modern world emerged via complex social and economic processes over which no one mind or group of thinkers exercised decisive control and to which liberal politics was primarily a response. Liberalism was a rescue operation for European life largely devised after it had already been torn asunder by religious war and destabilized by unprecedented economic dynamism and scientific discoveries, both of which undermined the authority of various received traditions and institutions.

Viewed in this light, many of the pernicious ideas and trends that Deneen so potently and justifiably skewers in his book appear not to be synonymous with “liberalism” so much as examples of ideologies that have emerged from within the liberal order as it struggles to contend with both longstanding and newly emerging challenges. (Libertarianism and progressivism are two such ideologies.)

This might sound like a distinction without a difference, but it’s a crucially important one, since it leaves open the possibility that our problems have more proximal sources than Deneen will allow, and that these problems do not quite portend the world-historical failure of liberalism. Sometimes bad ideas lose their power without taking everything down with them.

That’s a really insightful criticism. If Linker is right, then classical liberalism can be saved. My sense is that Linker is wrong, not because liberalism is “bad” by nature, but because liberalism in its post-1960s form lacks the inner resources to reform itself, precisely because we have become, and are becoming, a people without a shared religion, and therefore without a way to work settle our fundamental disputes. This is more or less Alasdair MacIntyre’s point: that the “Enlightenment project” (i.e., liberalism) could not find a way to provide a binding morality without God. In After Virtue, MacIntyre says that the Aristotelian philosophical tradition could work.

Well, in theory, yes, it could. But people aren’t philosophers. Leaving aside its truth claims, religion is in part a way of giving a society’s moral code divine sanction: commandments, not suggestions. I would a rather live in godless Sweden than in Saudi Arabia (to choose two extreme examples), but if I had to bet on which society will prove more resilient in the long run, I’d bet on the Islamic society.

I would love to hear from liberals (that is, people of both the left and the right who believe in classical liberalism) make their case for why they believe that liberalism as it actually exists today has within it the capacity to overcome these crises. Don’t just assert that it does; make a case.

Read Damon Linker’s entire column.