Why Liberalism Failed by Patrick J. Deneen
What Why Liberalism Failed Is About
The title is provocative for those who are politically inclined. How could anyone think that liberalism has failed? But Patrick Deneen isn’t talking about liberalism in the sense that we most often use it – as political and cultural progressivism. No, in Why Liberalism Failed, Deneen has set his sites on the entire political theory of liberalism, which is the very foundation of the American political system. This sort of liberalism is a political theory based on the premises that individuals should have the liberty to make autonomous choices about their lives, and that human beings must conquer nature in order to thrive.
The first premise, what Deneen calls “anthropological individualism and the voluntarist conception of choice,” is a radical redefinition of the word liberty. In classical thought – including Christian teaching – liberty was the power to rule oneself, to demonstrate the virtues over against the baser appetites. These lower desires, particularly those for food, drink, and sex, were understood to be tyrannical, and a man could not be free unless he was able to exercise self-control, or what the classical philosophers called temperance. Temperance was understood to be the true liberator, and a society could only be free insofar as its leaders exercised self-control.
Temperance was understood to be the true liberator, and a society could only be free insofar as its leaders exercised self-control.
Liberal theory turns this on its head, and posits that liberty is experienced only to the extent that individuals are free to make the choices they desire to make. “Liberal philosophy rejected [the] requirement of human self-limitation. …Liberalism instead understands liberty as the condition in which one can act freely within the sphere unconstrained by positive law.” (35-38) The only laws that liberalism allows are those which prevent us from directly harming other people. All else is permissible.
The second premise follows logically. In order for man to possess autonomous choice, he must not be limited by anything, even nature. Thus science is sacralized. Technological development, gifted to humanity by scientists and engineers, leads inexorably to expanded choice, which is freedom. Yet we are only now beginning to realize how steep is the cost of this Baconian project of human liberation. Who can save us from the ravages of this global experiment of science? Why, science, of course! “Today we are accustomed to arguing that we should follow the science in an issue such as climate change, ignoring that our crisis is the result of long-standing triumphs of science and technology in which ‘following science’ was tantamount to civilizational progress.” (15) How deliciously ironic. Like Gollum falling into the fires of Mt. Doom, we cling to our unfettered autonomy – our Precious – even as the world around us burns because of it.
Like Gollum falling into the fires of Mt. Doom, we cling to our unfettered autonomy – our Precious – even as the world around us burns because of it.
Liberalism is ably defended by two equal, but opposite, sects. The classical liberals (in America, these are the conservative Republicans) proclaim the autonomy of the individual and the primacy of the market. Meanwhile, the progressive liberals (the liberal Democrats) espouse the wonders of the centralized state. But these are merely two sides of the same coin. The one requires the other. Increased freedom of choice requires a stronger, centralized government to enforce such liberty. In Deneen’s words, “Statism enables individualism, individualism demands statism.” (17) In the end, Democrats and Republicans need each other, because without one or the other the engine of liberalism would sputter and fail. “The expansion of liberalism rests upon a vicious and reinforcing cycle in which state expansion secures the end of individual fragmentation, in turn requiring further state expansion to control a society without shared norms, practices, or beliefs.” (62)
What I Learned from Why Liberalism Failed
Why Liberalism Failed has reinforced my understanding of the hopelessness – not simply the absence of hope for or in, but the hopelessness native to – the American political landscape. It is, in fact, a hellscape. Liberalism failed because it succeeded. It became the truest version of itself, and so has destroyed the people it purported to liberate. Liberalism liberates to the thralldom of appetite. The liberal system is inherently, and dangerously, flawed because it rejects virtue, culture, and nature.
The liberal system is inherently, and dangerously, flawed because it rejects virtue, culture, and nature.
In schools, norms of modesty, comportment, and academic honesty are replaced by widespread lawlessness and cheating (along with increasing surveillance of youth), while in the fraught realm of coming-of-age, courtship norms are replaced by “hookups” and utilitarian sexual encounters. The norm of stable lifelong marriage is replaced by various arrangements that ensure the autonomy of the individuals, whether married or not. Children are increasingly viewed as a limitation upon individual freedom, which contributes to liberalism’s commitment to abortion on demand, while overall birth rates decline across the developed world. In the economic realm, the drive for quick profits, often driven by incessant demands for immediate profitability, replaces investment and trusteeship. And in our relationship to the natural world, short-term exploitation of the earth’s bounty becomes our birthright, even if it forces our children to deal with shortages of such resources as topsoil and potable water. Restraint of these activities is understood (if at all) to be the domain of the state’s exercise of positive law, not the result of cultivated self-governance born of cultural norms.
Patrick J. Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed, p. 39-40
Liberalism is anticulture. It is a deculturing force that is designed to uproot a people from their norms, beliefs, and way of life. In this sense, liberalism is a colonizing force. It actively removes people from nature (humanity is saved by conquering nature), time (the past is rejected and the future is ignored), and place (success is defined in terms of mobility). “These three cornerstones of human experience – nature, time, and place – form the basis of culture, and liberalism’s success is premised upon their uprooting and replacement with facsimiles that bear the same names.” (66) Liberalism, as a colonizing anticulture, refashions citizens into consumers and beliefs into lifestyle choices, all while casting off norms and virtues as being hopelessly antithetical to the project of liberation. Liberalism and culture cannot coexist because liberalism is the negation of culture.
Patrick J. Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed, p. 83
Just as more science is not the answer to the massive problems caused by scientific advancement, so more liberalism is not the answer to the problems caused by liberalism unchecked by self-restraint.
Liberalism is the air that we breathe. Like fish in a poison pond, we are so accustomed to liberalism that we cannot see the harm it is doing. We have acclimated to the anticulture. Another election, another candidate, won’t change anything. Liberalism has failed us because it has been so successful at giving us everything we could ever want. Just as more science is not the answer to the massive problems caused by scientific advancement, so more liberalism is not the answer to the problems caused by liberalism unchecked by self-restraint. What we need is virtue. Self-rule. Temperance. The only way to save ourselves, not to mention this beautiful planet we live on, is to govern ourselves more strictly than liberalism will allow. It may not be sexy or marketable, but liberation is only found in words like, “No. This is enough. I don’t need any more.”
My Recommendation of Why Liberalism Failed
Why Liberalism Failed is both inspiring and frustrating. Deneen is at his best in describing the problem of liberalism, but he struggles to offer us a way forward. What comes after liberalism? How do we get out of this mess that our appetites have created? How do we govern ourselves when so few people are competent at governing themselves? But those are bigger questions, and they have been both asked and answered elsewhere.
The usefulness of Why Liberalism Failed is found in the way it shakes us awake to see the world as it truly is. Deneen writes as a prophet, not a social scientist, so the evidence that supports his claims won’t be found in these pages. This may be a source of great frustration for some, and could leave readers wondering if his complaints are supported by the facts.
Despite these shortcomings, Why Liberalism Failed excels at what it truly is: a polemic against unbounded autonomous choice and the unethical, thoughtless destruction of nature. Liberals of all stripes – both classical and progressive – will no doubt find much to love and hate here, which I take to be the sign of an excellent work of political and social thought. If that is the sort of thing that interests you, then I highly recommend this book. I trust you will find it rewarding and challenging. And who knows? It may even inspire you to make some changes to your life.