Why Liberalism Failed
by Patrick J. Deneen
Yale University Press, 2018, 248 pp., $30
How bad are things? This question was the title of a 2015 post by Scott Alexander on his popular blog, Slate Star Codex. In it, Alexander, a psychiatrist, notes that his work in medicine gives him knowledge about people’s lives that others often lack. He finds that many people’s lives—even the lives of the comparatively wealthy—are in worse shape than we might suppose. Alexander:
I work in a wealthy, mostly-white college town consistently ranked one of the best places to live in the country. If there’s anywhere that you might dare hope wasn’t filled to the brim with people living hopeless lives, it would be here. But that hope is not realized. Every day I get to listen to people describe problems that would seem overwrought if they were in a novel, and made-up if they were in a thinkpiece on The Fragmentation of American Society….
This is also why I am wary whenever people start boasting about how much better we’re doing than back in the bad old days. That precise statement seems to in fact be true. But people have a bad tendency to follow it up with “And so now most people have it pretty good.” I don’t think we have any idea how many people do or don’t have it pretty good. Nobody who hasn’t read polls would intuitively guess that 40-something percent of Americans are young-Earth creationists. How should they know how many people have it pretty good or not?
I think about all of the miserable people in my psychiatric clinic. Then I multiply by ten psychiatrists in my clinic. Then I multiply by ten similarly-sized clinics in my city. Then I multiply by a thousand such cities in the United States. Then I multiply by hundreds of countries in the world, and by that time my brain has mercifully stopped being able to visualize what that signifies.
Alexander is not alone in pondering how bad things are; these days, the question seems to occupy many of us. Despite the unprecedented levels of material wealth our society enjoys, a nagging sense that things are not going so well haunts the national conversation. Some worry about economic inequality; others about a crisis of masculinity. Some fear that college students are turning fascist; others that secularist forces are attempting to destroy religion. Concerns over the rise of illiberal populism have launched a thousand think pieces. Pick your slice of society—religion, economics, politics, culture—and you will find people arguing that something has gone seriously wrong in the 21st-century West.
Patrick Deneen, a political philosophy professor at the University of Notre Dame, sees his own discipline (of course) as the key to understanding our present dysfunctions. He stands with those who thinks things are pretty bad, and he has his own theory about the culprit: the political philosophy known as “liberalism.”
What is liberalism? For Deneen, liberalism does not encompass only the tenets or policies associated with the Democratic Party. Rather, he refers to the more fundamental political philosophy that shaped America’s founding, and that both the American Right and Left share.
Liberalism, argues Deneen, displaced earlier classical and Christian theories of political life, ushering in the political habits and forms we now think of as natural. “Protoliberal” thinkers like Machiavelli, Descartes, Francis Bacon, and Hobbes paved the way for liberalism by engendering intellectual “revolutions.” These revolutions included defining politics down so that it is based on “realism” about human selfishness rather than “idealism” about human virtue (Machiavelli), exalting “individualistic rationality” over the power of “irrational” custom and tradition (Descartes, Hobbes), and advocating for a more domineering and extractive relationship to nature (Bacon).
These thinkers created a space for later philosophers like Locke (“the first philosopher of liberalism”) to formulate liberalism proper—specifically, the variety of liberalism known today as classical liberalism. This is the philosophy we tend to associate with American founding principles, one which embraces social contract theory, the centrality of individual rights as political guardrails, and the free market.
After classical liberalism came “progressive liberalism,” which Deneen believes flows directly from its forebear. Progressive liberalism is “inspired by figures like John Stuart Mill and John Dewey” and shares certain assumptions with classical liberalism, but extends or applies them in new ways. For example, whereas classical liberals saw nature as malleable for purposes of human enrichment, progressive liberals extend that analysis to human nature, which they see as also subject to human manipulation. For Deneen, classical liberalism and progressive liberalism today dominate our politics together, and though we tend to think of them as opposed to each other, on the fundamental level they share much in common.
Such is the (abbreviated) genealogy of liberalism; let us return to its central tenets. “The deepest commitment of liberalism,” writes Deneen, “is expressed by the name itself: liberty.” But for Deneen, it is liberalism’s theory of liberty that divides it so completely from its predecessors: It takes the concept of liberty, which he believes predates liberalism, and “colonizes” it with radically different intellectual content. Pre-liberal liberty, in Deneen’s view, did have a place for “individual free choice.” But one exercised that choice in the context of one’s existing relationships and unchosen obligations, while also influenced by virtue, custom, and one’s surrounding community.
Deneen identifies the “most basic and distinctive” aspect of liberalism as its commitment to “the idea of voluntarism—the unfettered and autonomous choice of individuals.” In this view, politics arises when human beings consent to sacrifice some of their natural autonomy in order to set up a political system that will guard them from others’ infringement of their liberty. This leads to a conception of all human relationships as subject to consent given “on the basis of their service to rational self-interest.” Liberalism focuses solely on the individual’s free choice, neglecting to account for “the impact of one’s choices upon the community, one’s obligations to the created order, and ultimately to God.” Individuals become “rational utility maximizers,” accepting or rejecting all relationships, obligations, and political orders based upon narrow self-interest.
Yet liberalism does more than this, in Deneen’s opinion: It also fosters a “war against nature” in which humans seek to master their environment for the sake of economic and technological progress; it seeks to release the desire for food and sex from “the artificial constraints of culture”; it supports the creation of a centralized progressive state to liberate the individual from all unchosen bonds; it changes our perception of time so that we become “presentists,” without regard for past or future; it corrodes the place of the liberal arts in the university by redefining liberty in such a way that these preparations no longer seem necessary to its achievement. These liberal innovations, for Deneen, underlie many of the dysfunctions of the West today. For example, he relates the “brain drain” in small towns and rural areas, and the resulting economic balkanization, to the efforts by liberal thinkers to replace the “old aristocracy” of “inherited privilege” with a new meritocratic aristocracy.
His diagnosis complete, Deenen turns to the treatment. Yet though his diagnosis is intellectual, tracing concrete problems to their roots in abstract ideas, his proposed cure runs in the opposite direction: Deneen argues that we should not replace liberalism with another political philosophy. Instead, “we should focus on developing practices that foster new forms of culture, household economics, and polis life.” He goes so far to say that “the impulse to devise a new and better political theory in the wake of liberalism’s simultaneous triumph and demise is a temptation that must be resisted.” Instead, he suggests, what we need is “not a better theory, but better practices” in local communities. Deneen has few concrete examples of what such practices might be, though he does say it is important “to do and make things for oneself,” and to obtain “the skills of building, fixing, cooking, planting, preserving, and composting.”
These recommendations, as far as they go, are sound. But there is a tension in Deneen’s book; his account of American history casts doubt on the claim that practice, absent theory, will save us. In his view, Americans historically lived better than their theory. Though the Founders conceived America as a liberal country—the Constitution is a liberal document and The Federalist Papers contain liberal reasoning—Deneen argues that ordinary citizens did not always act like liberals. “Americans, for much of their history, were not philosophically interested in Burke but were Burkeans in practice,” he writes at one point. Furthermore, Deneen notes,
Writing of the township democracies he visited during his journey to America in the early 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville expressed amazement over the intense commitment Americans exhibited toward their shared civic lives…Tocqueville observed practices of democratic citizenship that had developed antecedent to America’s liberal founding. Its roots and origins, he argued, lie in the earlier Puritan roots of the American settlement…
In other words, earlier America had liberal theory and nonliberal practice—and theory beat practice hands down. Liberalism dissolved traditional practices and remade society in its own image; it did not stay a merely official philosophy but came to permeate the lives of ordinary citizens. Practice did not “filter up” and soften theory; theory “filtered down” and corrupted practice.
In light of theory’s victory, why does Deneen expect practice to win in round two? Why not seek a new theory, if political philosophy is so powerful a weapon? Here Deneen seems to equivocate a bit. He writes that “the search for a comprehensive theory is what gave rise to liberalism and successor ideologies in the first place,” and therefore we should avoid such a search this time. However, he also says of the intentional, local communities he recommends that “it is likely from the lessons learned within these communities that a viable postliberal political theory will arise, one that begins with fundamentally different anthropological assumptions….”
These arguments raise some questions. For example, wouldn’t we call the Christian and classical political traditions themselves attempts to “search for a comprehensive theory?” Liberalism hardly stands alone in seeking a robust theory of political life. Nor have such searches ended in the modern day or dissolved into the liberal project. Today, the social and political principles of Catholic thought—known as Catholic Social Teaching (CST)—offer an alternative theory to liberalism.1 Furthermore, it is a living theory; Catholic scholars are constantly engaged in developing, extending, and deepening CST. In addition, when Deneen does concede the desirability of some better theory, he regards it rather passively: A viable theory “will arise.” Yet how does a theory arise if nobody formulates it—if nobody, in Deneen’s words, searches for it?
It seems that Deneen does not oppose the efforts of philosophers to formulate a better theory per se, but rather to try for one first and above all.2 He argues that:
Calls for restoration of culture and the liberal arts, restraints upon individualism and statism, and limits upon liberalism’s technology will no doubt prompt suspicious questions. Demands will be made for comprehensive assurances that inequalities and injustices arising from racial, sexual, and ethnic prejudice be preemptively forestalled and that local autocracies or theocracies be legally prevented. Such demands have always contributed to the extension of liberal hegemony…
Deneen gives what appears to be a tactical reason for focusing on practice: Liberal opponents would use the effort to formulate a better theory as a pretext to shut down any attempts to humanize our society. So while the time for theoretical formulation may eventually come, for now we should keep our ideas on the back burner.
Perhaps, for Deneen, people simply are not yet ready for a better theory—whether to formulate or to receive it. Such a view harmonizes with a classical insight: Truth and virtue go together. The ability to discern and accept a better theory than liberalism might depend on a prior habituation in virtue that the average citizen of the West simply hasn’t had. We could argue that Western citizens, even those critical of liberalism, must prepare for postliberalism by first developing virtue through the practices Deneen describes. Perhaps his idea that theory will emerge from intentional communities has some weight, as those communities will inculcate healthy habits of behavior that will lead to wise habits of mind.
We might find this claim reasonable, and yet also find it wanting. The title of Deneen’s book is Why Liberalism Failed. For Deneen, liberalism is collapsing under the weight of its own success. He sees two possible ways this could resolve itself. First, liberalism could be more intensely anti-democratic, “imposing the liberal order by fiat.” But he notes that this solution would create instabilities, and suggests that another resolution is possible—”the end of liberalism and its replacement by another regime.” Deneen thinks that either of these could happen, but that neither “is to be wished for in the form it is likely to take.”
In other words, if liberalism is replaced, that replacement will probably be even worse than liberalism itself. In light of that prediction, why shouldn’t critics of liberalism at least try to offer something better? Deneen may believe that such attempt will necessarily be so disastrous that all we can or should do is endure the next stage of our political, social, and cultural life, and prepare as best we can for better days. No doubt a postliberal pursuit of a better regime would take many wrong turns and be compromised by the realities of our situation, not to mention our unavoidable human weaknesses. But is disaster so inevitable that we must preemptively cede the future to whatever comes next, no matter how undesirable?
If postliberals have any chance at ushering in a better regime than the current one, then it seems worth pursuing. Such a pursuit is not incompatible with the localist strategy Deneen advocates. Recently, the Bruderhof community in Walden, NY (the Bruderhof are a global Anabaptist movement that holds all property in common and seeks to live the life of the early Christians described in the Book of Acts) held an event on their property called “Beyond Liberalism: Community, Culture, and Economy.” Deneen himself was a speaker, as were Ross Douthat and Bill Kaufman, with Rod Dreher moderating a panel and contributing to the discussion.3 The Bruderhof are deeply localist and communal in their life; in Walden they run their own schools and have their own factory. And yet they also committed themselves to hosting this conversation with national figures on topics that touched upon politics and the very future of our country.
The weekend did not produce the blueprint for a successor regime, but it showed that one need not choose between theory and practice. A central task for postliberalism going forward is finding creative ways of combining the two.
1Modern Catholic Social Teaching is conventionally dated to Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum, published in 1891, and that tradition of reflection has continued, most recently with Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si (2015).
2I recently attended an event at which Deneen, when pushed on this question, spoke favorably of a political program that would include a restrained foreign policy, recognition of the importance of religious faith, and an economy that distributed productive property more widely. Rod Dreher summarizes Deneen’s remarks at the event here.
3This is the event I mentioned in the previous footnote.