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Classical Liberalism Strikes Out

An interview with the author of Why Liberalism Failed

Today is the publication date of Notre Dame political theorist Patrick Deneen’s much-anticipated book, Why Liberalism Failed. I read an advance copy of it late last fall, and knew at once that it would be one of the most important political books of 2018. Not just among conservative books, but among political books, period. You’ll see why below.

In his review for TAC, Gene Callahan says Deneen’s book is vitally important to understand what’s happening in Western politics now. That’s spot on, whether you consider yourself on the Left or the Right. In a separate post, I will offer my own thoughts about this must-read book, but here I want to share with you an e-mail interview I did with Prof. Deneen in which he lays out the thesis of Why Liberalism Failed.

RD: Let’s define an important term. You’re a conservative, but you have not written a book about why the philosophy that defines the Democratic Party has failed. What do you mean by “liberalism” here. 

PD: By “liberalism,” I am speaking of a longstanding political philosophy, not a narrowly partisan position. Liberalism is the modern political philosophy of the emancipated individual, defined in the “state of nature” philosophies of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke as a monistic and desiring self. The condition of the “state of nature” is the condition of absolute liberty: the capacity of the individual to achieve his or her desires without obstacle. But because such a condition gives rise to conflict, government is created to secure the rights of such individuals. Under liberalism the primary reason that we have a public order is to secure individual liberty.

Liberalism is thus a political philosophy that rests upon the realization of the autonomous individual self. This means not only must such individuals be politically free from arbitrary government power, but they must be free from what come to be considered all arbitrary and unchosen relationships that include social and familial bonds. Not only must all relationships ultimately be the result of the free choice of the sovereign individual, but, in order to preserve the autonomy of the liberated self, those relationships must be permanently revisable and easily exited. Thus, liberalism not only shapes our public institutions, but our social and private ones as well, ordering society toward the sovereign choice and autonomy of the individual choosing self. We see the liberal human coming fully into being not only in our political domain, but in the breakdown of most of our social and familial institutions, including the rise of the “nones, “moralistic therapeutic deism,” and the deepening generational avoidance of commitment, marriage and children.

We can say, then, that liberalism is the political operating system of America. Our different parties are like “apps” that operate on that liberal operating system, reflecting its deepest commitments in what are most often its main political agendas: on the Right, the picture of the emancipated individual chooser that animates libertarian economics; and on the Left, the vision of the emancipated individual chooser that animates their libertarian “lifestyle” aspirations, particularly relating to sexuality and abortion.

You write that liberalism “has failed because it has succeeded.” Explain the paradox.

The aspiration of the liberated individual was always moderated by many other historical and cultural influences, especially – in the West – by orthodox forms of Christianity. For a long time, many people of good will understandably could be strong supporters and proponents of the official liberal political philosophy of the American order because of those moderating influences. However, I argue that those moderating influences have been eviscerated by the “success” of liberalism, by its coming fully into being. In this sense, it is an ideology that remakes society in its image – not in the violent manner of those competing and defeated ideologies of fascism and communism, but, rather, in most cases, through the invitation to regard individual liberty as the highest aspiration of the successful life. However, understanding its basic commitments, we can see ways that the liberal regime has certainly been extended through the powers of the state, including through such avenues as the HHS mandate as well as less obvious ways, such as transportation and housing policy, that moved most Americans out of communities and into suburbs.

I argue, then, that we see liberalism failing because it has succeeded. As liberalism has “become more fully itself,” it becomes more immoderate and reveals the falseness of its anthropological assumptions. The breakdown of our political order as well as the loss of any kind of common culture and even civil comportment is, in a sense, the reflection of the successful artificial creation of a state of nature. We are now seeing the results of a 500-year experiment that aims at liberating the individual from social, religious and familial ties, now held together only by the belief that what we have in common is the fact that we are all rights-bearing individuals.

There’s another paradox in your analysis: that the more liberalism liberates us as individuals, the more dependent it makes us on the state. What do you mean?

The political philosopher Bertrand de Jouvenel once wrote that “state of nature” scenarios were obviously the imaginings of “childless men who had forgotten their own childhood.” He meant that the imaginary version of our true “nature” as radically individuated selves is in fact no-where to be found as our “natural” condition. We are first and foremost by nature relational creatures. And yet, we see a different reality now coming into being, not as the result of our “natural” condition, but through the efforts of a massive architecture that has been erected to make possible human lives increasingly lived in disconnection from permanent relations and absent constitutive cultural forms of membership and belonging.

The state becomes the main creator and supporter of this condition. A range of policies – economic, social and political – have as their aim the realization of this creature once only imagined in the state of nature, but now increasingly the default human of modern political and social world. The best representation of this phenomenon is probably found in the Obama campaign ad, “The Life of Julia,” which portrays the lifespan of a woman, from childhood to old age, whose complete independence was the result of a slew of government programs. She has no apparent relationships with other human beings (she seems to have a child for a brief span, but that nameless little person is taken away on a yellow school bus and never reappears), and the point of the ad is that her complete freedom is the result of the total lack of reliance upon any other particular human being.

The result of this liberation from particular people, as Tocqueville predicted, would be a growing reliance upon the state. This reliance, in fact, at first seems less oppressive than the bonds of more traditional societies, because we are freed from particular obligations. People expect not to take care of their elderly parents, and so we support health care that includes long-term elderly care that allows us the liberty not to assume the duty that had been the expectation of children in every civilization before ours. And the more the various constitutive institutions are weakened, the more the state becomes the only remedy for our various needs.

Thus, the irony: individualism and statism are not opposites, but grow together in tandem. In our daily partisan politics, we have tended to pit individualism against statism – Ayn Rand against Karl Marx – with conservatives claiming to be individualists and progressives claiming to support an expansive state. But what we have witnessed is the simultaneous growth of both the state and the rise of individualism, not as opposites, but as necessary partners. The world has never seen a more individualistic society nor a more encompassing state. The state has empowered itself by claiming to empower the individual. The practical effect is to leave the populace disempowered amid our liberty, along with a felt sense of inability to control or influence the state, the economy, and much of our own fates.

Is the Trump presidency an example of liberalism’s decay, or a last gasp to save the system?

We can see how the attraction for a strong, blustering, iconoclastic leader would arise in this context. The appeal of Trump arose from the pervasive sense of helplessness by a broad swath of Americans, especially those who have suffered most from the dissolution of families, churches, communities, and a range of constitutive bonds. On the one hand, I see the effort to exert some control over our destiny – by demanding an economy that works for average citizens, by insisting that a national culture amount to more than borderless non-judgmentalism, and rejecting the “political correctness” accompanying a sexual revolution whose wreckage is accumulating exponentially – as a “last gasp,” as you put it, and even an admirable one.

On the other hand, the appeal to a strongman is simply a perverted echo of liberalism’s belief that the deep dislocations generated by the liberal order can be solved by the national state. Of course, the state has to act in ways that will support thriving communities, neighborhoods, and families. But one can hardly imagine a person less capable of speaking to, and seriously addressing, the breakdown of the social, communal, and familial fabric of Trump Country than Donald J. Trump. Those who supported Trump deeply intuit the need for a fundamental change, but, amid the wreckage of a dissolved culture, lack the tools to build new foundations.

Perhaps the most powerful chapter of the book is the one in which you approvingly cite Solzhenitsyn’s observation that liberalism’s weakness is its incapacity to generate people capable of self-government. Yet people must be governed somehow. How has the “death of culture,” as you put it, prepared the American people for tyranny?

In liberal philosophy and increasingly for liberal practice, the greatest obstacle to the liberation of the individual is “culture.” Broadly speaking, culture is the deep-seated set of norms and practices that are transmitted as a matter of course and tradition, a generational inheritance. Culture arises from “the bottom up,” from practices that become traditions and customs, a “way of life” that is not the object of conscious choice and decision. If you remember the trial scene from “A Few Good Men,” there’s a moment when the Tom Cruise character asks how the soldier knew how to get to the mess hall everyday, even though the route wasn’t specified in the Marine Corps manual. One might describe such knowledge as “customary” or even “common sense” (i.e., knowledge which is broadly and commonly shared).

Culture takes many forms, of course, and not all cultural norms are just and desirable. However, many of those norms govern and guide behavior in fraught areas of life: coming-of- age, adolescent relationship between the sexes, marriage, childrearing, care for the elderly, death. Also, cultures arise in the observance of annual festivals and commemorations, often connected to seasons and linking everyday human life to the changing of seasons, to deep rhythms of nature.

Cultures are most deeply embedded and expressed in religious observances. Typically, such cultural forms are learned in homes but also reinforced in the broader society. Today, more likely than not, society aims to undermine any culture learned in the home, and it’s increasingly the case that there is exceedingly little culture learned and transmitted even within homes. Instead, we are pervasively recipients of a prepackaged, commercialized set of non-norms, appeals solely to our desiring selves without guidance or reinforcement of how to live.

What we call “culture” today is actually an “anti-culture.”

For liberalism, cultural norms tend to be regarded as irrational, unchosen, oppressive, inegalitarian, and therefore must be overturned. Liberalism demands that the informal norms be replaced by express legalized mandates, ultimately backed by the power of the state. The first is done in the name of freedom; the second, both to regulate freedom and apply equal standards to every person under its domain.

For instance, norms governing the relations between men and women have been displaced in favor of the consent of free individuals. Liberalism proposes that we can replace the thick set of norms that governed dating and courtship with a cultureless landscape of individuals making decisions on the fly. We have seen the outcome of this particular form of liberation, both in the sexual anarchy that exists on college campuses, and the deeply flawed nature of “consent” when relations are inescapably unequal. On our campuses, the response has been to introduce a new set of government rules that seek to punish transgression after the fact, deemed necessary with the elimination of once-pervasive cultural norms governing sexual behavior and character that were to guide us before the fact.

While it’s the widespread view in liberal society that such norms were oppressive especially to the marginal, I think it’s the case that such norms were most often developed to protect and shelter those who might be subject to predation – children, women, the elderly. It was John Stuart Mill who argued in On Liberty that “custom” held back individual transgressiveness, and in order to allow the progressive benefits of transgression, custom should be overthrown. We have a society today that favors the transgressive, and which leaves those who are arguably protected by the guidelines of a variety of norms at the mercy of the predators. Those most exposed under liberalism are children (including, and especially, the unborn), women, and the elderly.

A friendly critic on the Right rejects your thesis that liberalism is in crisis. He says that the crisis will only come when people can imagine a realistic alternative to liberalism — and that is not on the horizon. Does he have a point? After all, nobody in the US seriously proposes that we embrace any of the various forms of illiberalism on the world stage, e.g., Putin’s Russia, Xi’s China.

First, I think it’s very possible for liberalism to be in crisis without a “realistic alternative.” The book opens with a quote from Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror that describes how the breakdown in belief in the legitimacy of medieval claims about of chivalry and noblesse oblige – increasingly contradicted by the shortcomings in their practice – led to the abandonment of faith in that system. There was no “realistic alternative” in the wings ready to replace feudalism. Rather, a long period of instability and trial-and- error was the consequence of the loss of confidence in a once-stable system.

I would also suggest to this “friendly critic” that there are pockets of growing interest in various alternative forms, including attraction among some to Putinesque rejection of liberal internationalism and progressivism, something I see among some of my students (admittedly, a decided minority). The election of Donald Trump is a more populist expression of this yearning, obviously, and the intensity of the reaction of Left against “Russian meddling” is an indication not only of the panic over Trump, but more deeply, a deeper insecurity over the prospects for liberalism in the world given the growing sense of an alternative on the world stage, visible in Russia, Poland and Hungary.

Then there is a growing interest among especially among younger traditionalist Catholics  in “integralism,” a dissolving of the distinction between Church and State along the lines described by Andrew Willard Jones in his book Before Church and State. While I am fascinated both by this condition as described by Jones, and even more so, by the attraction among some younger contemporaries to this period, I am completely unpersuaded by the notion that such a settlement is a possibility for the world’s first Protestant nation.

So, I would agree with your “friendly critic” that none of these alternatives is appropriate nor should be attractive to Americans. My more parochial question is, can there be an “alternative” for a nation that has, by and large, only been liberal? Are there non-liberal currents within the American tradition that can be built upon, and if so, what would new iterations and combinations of those existing building-blocks look like? I believe that we have such soil that has lain fallow, and I hope in my next book to explore what such an “alternative tradition” in America might look like.

Your advice to the reader on what to do about all this is modest. What is it — and why are you not more ambitious? 

Actually, I suggest that we need two tracks. The first is quite ambitious, the rethinking of the American political project along the lines of my last answer. However, we need to be humble and realistic about its prospects: I regard this task as a multi-generational project, one that will need at least a century if not more. Liberalism is a 500-year project, and we are just at the beginning of its reassessment and the necessary new thinking and development of practices that have yet to come into being. We are deeply within the liberal mindset if we believe we can just come up with a new theory and, presto, we will have a new politics and a new way of life. We are also, ironically, in the liberal mindset if we believe we have exhausted all possible forms of political, social and economic life, implicit adherents of an “end of history” narrative. I believe we are only at the earliest stages of life – and political philosophy – after liberalism.

The second recommendation tracks your arguments in The Benedict Option (which I favorably cite in my conclusion), and complements the work of the first track, but represents a task that we can and should undertake immediately. Amid the wasteland of the liberal anti-culture, a main task is the creation and sustaining of true culture. Of course, it is the work fitting for households, but also of whole communities where they exist or might be fostered. It is the work especially for religious communities, and your book is a wake-up call that the fostering of Christian culture needs to be done in conscious differentiation from and even opposition to the dominant anti-culture.

Some critics have already suggested that this is essentially a “liberal” proposal, and in a sense that’s true: it seeks to take advantage of the shrinking space within liberal society for non-liberal communities, but it is a short- and medium-term strategy that can be effected today, not a proposal for a long-term alternative. Such work needs to be undertaken with the conscious understanding not that what is being sought is rapprochement with liberal society, but the development of resilient cultures that might survive its demise. From such practices – not from theory alone – we can develop true alternatives, ones made all the more attractive for their viability and attractiveness as the wreckage of liberalism mounts.

Finally, there are clear commonalities between your analysis and the one I drew on for The Benedict Option. I suspect that you will run into the same problem I did: many Americans will be unable to grasp your argument because we Americans lack a tragic sense. That is, we are so progress-minded and optimistic by nature that we struggle to imagine how this could all fall apart. Of course it’s in human nature to resist bad news, but in your view, is there something particularly American at work in this?

I suspect many Americans will be not only unable to grasp the analysis, but many will spare no effort in attempting to refute and discredit such claims. The increasing shrillness of our political square is not merely because America has gotten more partisan: we are seeing the rise of liberal reaction, a new form of reactionary politics especially by the “winners” in the liberal order who will do anything to preserve their status and position in the current regime. I see the effort to enforce norms of speech and thinking, especially upon Christians, not as a sign of liberal strength and ascendancy, but weakness and desperation.

This is not to say that it is not a politically dangerous phenomenon, especially when backed by the power of the state. But increasingly a regime that loses legitimacy among the populace will resort to outright force, whether through efforts at public denouncing, bankrupting, and even arresting critics of the regime. The weakening legitimacy of a political ideology is revealed often by the corresponding exposure of the bald force that backs its position.

Yet, I think that there’s enormous receptivity to the kinds of analyses that we’ve undertaken in our books, more so than at any other time that I can remember in my lifetime. I suspect that had you written The Benedict Option around the time of Crunchy Cons [2006 — RD], it would not have received interest comparable to what it’s generated since its publication. And the same I suspect to be true of my book, which wasn’t necessarily written to be a contemporary book, but which suddenly seems almost too topical.

This receptivity is actually a cause for some sadness on my part: while I think my book helps to explain the growing sense of political and social dislocation and confusion in America and the West, I take no pleasure in that fact. And because there are no easy answers that will “fix” our current problems, I find myself responding to those critics who ask for my counsel, in the first instance that we understand our true home and patrie lies in Heaven, and our best answer today lies in prayer. I pray desperately for a decent future for our children, and hope that the unraveling of our current order marks not the beginning of a new dark ages, but a time of hopeful possibility.

A tragic sense demands at least the admission that we don’t know what awaits, and in all likelihood, it will be an inescapable mixture of good and ill.

Patrick Deneen’s book Why Liberalism Failed is published today by Yale University Press.



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