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Deneen’s Book Gets Even Hotter

'Why Liberalism Failed' identifies the chief political challenge of our time
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New York magazine has a good review column up on Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, which will no doubt be the most important political book of the year. It’s a very good summary of his argument. Excerpt:

At the core of Deneen’s critique is what he sees as a liberal redefinition of the ancient and medieval concept of freedom, or libertas. The ancient Greeks and Romans, as well as the medieval Christians, understood freedom as the learned ability, cultivated through discipline and education in virtue, to properly govern one’s self. The freedom to do what one desires is a false freedom, in this view, because the world is limited but our desires are not, so that in pursuing them we ultimately become their slaves. Becoming free, then, is the process of achieving mastery over our “base” impulses. There is a circularity, too, between good politics and good individual conduct. A society can only govern itself well if it comprises self-governing citizens, and citizens can only learn self-government within a well-governed society.

For Deneen, liberalism’s big innovation was to reject this classical understanding as unrealistic, unscientific, and oppressive. Seeking a more scientific basis for politics, liberals and proto-liberals such as Locke and Hobbes stripped humanity down to its bare essentials — self-interested individuals unmarked by culture or history. Writing in a religiously divided and perpetually warring Europe, they argued that civil peace could be assured by allowing individuals to pursue their private interests free of the irrational restrictions imposed by custom, religion, and popular prejudice, with the modern state there to prevent them from taking advantage of one another. Freedom, that is, was redefined from self-government to lack of external restraint — a notion that was extended to the natural world, where humans, now armed with reason and modern science, no longer faced nature as a fixed limit on their desires, but something to be conquered and transformed. To legitimize the whole structure, liberal theorists projected this state of affairs back into a “state of nature,” a mythical past in which individuals had come together and consented to be governed out of their own shared self-interest.

But while liberalism presented itself as a scientific description of reality, it was, for Deneen, from its beginning a project to transform the world. Humans, for instance, are not naturally isolated individuals. Everyone is born into a specific time, place, and cultural tradition which, however restrictive, is also the source of their identity and connection to other people. Yet modern liberal society, through the action of both the state and the market, erodes these “natural” social bonds, creating in their place the cultureless, isolated individuals that liberal theory claimed to find in the state of nature. And as individuals are stripped of the cultural norms that formerly governed social conduct, the resulting anarchy requires the state to step into the breach by threatening to punish those who violate the rights of others — retroactively coming to play the role that, in Hobbes’s story, it was consciously and consensually created to fulfill. The general trend is that people are freed from old restrictions only to be subjected to the more abstract, alienating powers of capitalism and bureaucracy. Yet liberal ideology masks its own origins, presenting as natural conditions those that is has in fact created.

This conspiracy is one in which both American progressivism and conservatism are implicated.

Read the whole thing. 

The review made me think about why I was so put off by the Principled Conservative freakout over Marion Maréchal-Le Pen at CPAC. Honestly, I understand why hosting a politician named Le Pen from the National Front is alarming. I respect the argument that it was too far. However, focusing on the content of her speech, I remember back when my book Crunchy Cons came out over a decade ago. I grounded it in traditional conservative American thought, and in traditional Christianity — yet many (not all!) conservatives denounced the entire thing as closet liberalism, mostly because I questioned free-market dogma, individual autonomy, and factory farming.

To be sure, there are some things I would no doubt temper if I rewrote the book — the easy moralizing, for one — and some of that criticism was deserved (I seem to recall that the Claremont Review published a scathing review, but one that I learned a lot from). Still, what I remember from that whole period, starting with the original Crunchy Con essay in National Review back in 2002, is having constantly to fight with people on my own side who could only seem to see any real falling away from the Reaganite fusionist Gospel as rank heresy.

With some distance, I now see that it is all but impossible for a number of American conservatives to think outside of the categories of classical liberalism. In charity, I think they come by it honestly, in that they genuinely cannot comprehend that there can be a proper conservatism that is not strongly pro-market, and strongly individualistic.

Patrick Deneen is a conservative, naturally, but his book is also hard on liberal liberals too. Note this quote from Alasdair MacIntyre:

Liberalism… is often successful in preempting the debate by reformulating quarrels and conflicts within liberalism, so that they appear to have become debates within liberalism, putting in question this or that particular set of attitudes or policies, but not the fundamental tenets of liberalism with respect to individuals and the expression of their preferences. So so-called conservatism and so-called radicalism in these contemporary guises are in general mere stalking-horses for liberalism: the contemporary debate within modern political systems are almost exclusively between conservative liberals, liberal liberals, and radical liberals. There is little place in such political systems for the criticism of the system itself, that is, for putting liberalism in question.

This is true, and it explains why it has been so difficult for right-of-center thought that questions this or that aspect of liberalism to gain a hearing on the right. It’s why Marion Maréchal-Le Pen’s speech can only sound like blood-and-soil nationalism to Principled Conservative ears.

Park MacDougald, the New York reviewer — I’m amazed by the fair shake he gave the book — also picks out on the book’s big but unavoidable weakness: that there are no obvious and attractive alternatives to liberalism:

Deneen, to his credit, recognizes this problem. Instead of challenging liberalism directly, he suggests that the best way forward, for those so inclined, is to abandon the culture war and begin the practical work of rebuilding local communities that can embody the connections to people and place that he worries liberalism has eroded, and in which the virtues of self-mastery and self-limitation can be revived within their properly communal context. It’s not a solution for everyone, but that’s precisely the point. If Deneen’s critique is sound, then maybe such experiments will work, as people respond positively to the draws of non- or post-liberal community. If he’s wrong — if people really do find such arrangements so stultifying that they cannot bear the pressure — then only those who opted in will have been harmed. At a time when ever-larger factions of left and right are fleeing from liberalism, many of them for ominous alternatives, that may be the best we can hope.

Yes, I think it is — and that’s the approach I advocate from an orthodox Christian perspective in The Benedict Option.  But look, David Brooks’s column today suggests that secular forms of the Ben Op might appeal to some Millennials who don’t have faith in big ideas and big projects.

Here are two things I would like to read:

1) a sympathetic left-wing-but-not-liberal critique of Deneen’s book;
2) a defender of liberalism from the right explain how it might plausibly be reformed to better serve the realities in which we’re now living. I honestly don’t think it can be done, absent a robust revival of Christianity, but I could be wrong about that.




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