There has been no serious ideological challenge to liberalism, broadly understood, since the fall of world communism. The paradigm of liberal political philosophy is dominant: representative government, individual human rights and personal autonomy, the free movement of goods and people across borders, enthusiastic and untrammeled technological development, and enough regulation and welfare to smooth the rough edges of global market economics, but not so much as to kill the golden goose of economic growth. This is the elite consensus, and generally the popular one as well. Most American political debates, and our two major political parties, are within this broad liberal framework.
Yet there is still unease about the future of liberalism. And there should be. Not only has much of the world resisted liberalism—from continued Chinese authoritarianism, to violent Islamic fundamentalism, to Russia returning to despotism and the great game of empire—but the peoples of the West seem to be turning against the liberal consensus.
In Europe, the immigration crisis has boosted already-rising nationalism, largely responsible for the successful Brexit campaign. In the United States, our politics are polarized and our culture is decadent. Distrust of the government and other crucial institutions is rising and life expectancy is declining, in large part because opioids are now the opium of the masses. Popular discontent (and disgust with the prospect of a Clinton restoration) resulted in an old socialist crank nearly winning the Democratic nomination and Republicans electing a game-show host as president on a quasi-populist platform.
Is all of this just a pothole in the parking lot at the end of history, or does it portend civilizational crisis? And if liberalism is failing, can it be saved? Should it be saved?
Definining Liberty Down
In his new book, Why Liberalism Failed, Notre Dame professor Patrick Deneen argues that liberalism is dying, and deserves to. Liberalism’s failure results from its triumph—its success exposes its broken promises, contradictions, and deformations.
Deneen argues that liberalism was supposed to “foster greater equality, defend a pluralistic tapestry of different cultures and beliefs, protect human dignity, and, of course, expand liberty,” but it actually “generates titanic inequality, enforces uniformity and homogeneity, fosters material and spiritual degradation, and undermines freedom.” His critique, which chronicles the baleful effects of liberalism across culture and politics, should be read by both friends and foes of liberalism—those who wish to save it, as well as those who are looking at what might replace it.
For Deneen, liberalism’s view of liberty is at the root of its destructive failures. Liberty according to liberalism is significantly different from the classical and Christian understandings that preceded it. These worldviews had emphasized virtue and self-control as the safeguards of liberty against tyranny; political liberty rested upon personal liberty, which was understood to mean rational self-rule in accord with virtue.
Plato argued that tyranny arises first in the souls of those who are governed by their appetites, and then politically when such men gain power. Sustained political freedom requires citizens who govern themselves and their desires in accord with reason and virtue. For Christians, freedom primarily means freedom from the chains of sin.
In contrast, Deneen claims that liberalism, while appropriating much of the terminology of premodern philosophies, fundamentally redefined liberty to mean freedom from external constraints on human will, action, and the satiation of every kind of desire. The classical and Christian traditions would see the heart of the liberal understanding of liberty as enslavement to appetite.
The slow instantiation of this self-indulgent ideal of liberty remade the world. As Deneen explains, liberalism sought the “liberation of humans from established authority, emancipation from arbitrary culture and tradition, and the expansion of human power and dominion over nature through advancing scientific discovery and economic prosperity.” Liberalism maximized the capability and freedom to indulge one’s desires, while progressively dismantling as illegitimate infringements on human freedom the customs, traditions, and institutions that instilled self-control over appetite.
Ironically, this change in the understanding of liberty ensured a radical expansion of government power. Modern liberal governments have power beyond the dreams of ancient tyrants and medieval kings. Echoing Robert Nisbet, Deneen shows that “modern liberalism proceeds by making us both more individualist and more statist.” Liberalism holds that only the state, legitimized through some form of representative democracy, can restrain the individual.
The solvent of liberalism, with the state as the enforcer of individual rights, weakens and dissolves intermediary bonds and institutions. What remains are the individual and the state. Political control (which has an expanding portfolio of rights to protect) is ceded to a distant government, with responsible citizenship defined down to occasional voting. And so liberalism’s liberation of the individual coincides with increasing political powerlessness for ordinary citizens.
A Liberal House Divided
In Deneen’s view, the main divisions in our politics are not between liberalism and conservatism, but within liberalism, since most self-described conservatives are more interested in market efficiency than conserving anything. Thus, classical liberals emphasize limiting government intervention and the importance of economic liberation, while progressive liberals insist that government intervention in economics is essential to ensuring liberation for all, since paupers, the disenfranchised, and the marginalized are limited in their ability to fulfill their desires.
But neither side desires genuine federalism and localism, or a flourishing of real diversity and community. One will destroy communities on behalf of global economic efficiency, the other on behalf of social justice. Imagine the respective editorial boards of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal squabbling over who will get to “liberate” us, forever.
In either case, Deneen concludes that liberalism has wagered that it can generate enough excess wealth to buy off its economic losers, whether through government redistribution or economic growth improving everyone’s lot. They may be economically powerless and vastly poorer than the wealthy, but they are not in absolute poverty, deprived of basic necessities. And liberalism can now offer Internet porn and video games to pacify those it leaves behind, a troubling development that some are unduly optimistic about.
This callous materialism calls to mind a prisoner in a G. K. Chesterton story: “He had ample walking space, ample air, ample and even filling food. The only objection was that he had nothing to walk toward, nothing to feast about, and no reason whatever for drawing the breath of life.” Liberalism may provide more self-indulgent entertainment options than this, but it is similarly devoid of higher purpose, especially for those left behind by liberal prosperity. It produces what Deneen labels an “anti-culture” that digests potential rivals and assists liberalism in destroying the institutions and practices that provide for genuine human flourishing, as opposed to the self-indulgent cycle of increasing desire and consumption that liberalism treats as the highest human good.
He detects a similar void at the other end of the economic scale. Even the most elite colleges and universities, which were usually founded with a mission of educating for liberty in the classical sense, have been left rudderless by liberalism. If universities no longer have a mission of shaping the character of their students, then they are reduced to research and job-training centers, or worse—the biggest benefit from prestigious universities is often ensuring that the children of wealthy elites intermarry and network so that they can preserve their status from generation to generation.
The liberal arts, no longer concerned with cultivating the best of human creation in order to instruct the souls of students, have often turned upon the tradition and works they previously lauded. The physical sciences have been cut off from any purpose except the autonomous development of scientific knowledge and technology, and the training of scientists and technicians. The focus on the “practical” within higher education has left it with no real answer to the question of what the point of it all is.
This purposelessness is echoed in our fears of technological catastrophe. The development of technology is part of the liberal dream of controlling nature in order to fulfill human appetites. Knowledge is power. But this autonomous quest for power leads to fears that we are, or will be, controlled by technology, rather than its masters. Furthermore, the progressive branch of liberalism desires not only human control over nature, but control over human nature as well. Recognizing no human nature beyond desire, they will try to remake human nature in accord with desire, or in order to fulfill their imagined visions of what it ought to be.
This attempt to remake humanity will exacerbate the inequality that is already inherent to liberalism. Liberalism, which promised to end the unmerited privileges of rank and tradition, has established its own forms of rank and privilege, whose beneficiaries fight viciously to defend their prerogatives, even while denouncing privilege in general. Once again, liberalism, when fully realized, breaks all the promises it makes, which is why many seem to be destroying liberalism in order to save it, as illustrated by the criminalization of “hate speech” in much of Europe and the enthusiasm for doing the same in the United States. If Deneen is right that liberalism has irredeemably failed, there will be more of the same as panicking elites try to suppress populist expression and sentiment.
If liberalism has failed: what next? Deneen does not embrace the rise of populist strongmen and ethno-nationalism, or other unsavory alternatives rising in response to liberalism’s failures. But he argues that more liberalism, or a purer liberalism, will only make things worse. We must consider the future of liberty after liberalism, or else offer reasons to believe liberalism can be reformed. Alternatively, we must contemplate, and even more, begin to live in ways that instantiate, human freedom and flourishing after liberalism.
This book is in the best tradition of the public intellectual writing for the educated public, and Deneen and Yale University Press should be commended for composing and publishing it. Deneen’s arguments (which I have but briefly summarized) offer a formidable critique of our politics and culture. However, the volume has its flaws, and, having had the privilege of being taught by Professor Deneen, I know he would want even a sympathetic reviewer to take up the argument.
One problem is that he tends to fold the premodern world together and present its highest ideals as definitive. While such compression can provide brevity and clarity, here it obscures crucial distinctions. For instance, the philosophies of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were not definitive for the Greeks. Indeed, the likes Callicles and Thrasymachus were more representative of ancient Athens.
It was, after all, the democratic citizens of the polis who set a cup of hemlock before Socrates. Likewise, it was Roman concern for the public good that cynically crucified an innocent man to placate a mob. While the best philosophies of the ancients were superior to the self-indulgent liberalism Deneen deplores, the dominant worldviews and practices were often just as bad if not worse.
Deneen makes the same mistake, only in the opposite direction, in his assessment of modern ideas and institutions. He depicts the American founding and Constitution as thoroughgoing products of modern liberalism. But while there were certainly liberal elements to the Founding, they were balanced by other influences. Many of the founders were full of admiration for the classical tradition and steeped in Christianity. They were, with a few notable exceptions, not proponents of liberalism as Deneen describes it, and the Constitution and system of government they designed (often by committee and compromise) was not one of liberal individualism.
Identifying the American founders and Constitution as thoroughly liberal blinds Deneen to some of the best sources of renewal and reform available to those of us who reject liberalism. American political theory, as well as practice, may resist modern liberalism. Furthermore, many “liberal” practices, such as tolerance for free speech and freedom of conscience, can be grounded in something deeper than the pursuit of self-gratification that he identifies as the core of liberalism. These practices may be instructive in the virtues Deneen believes modern liberalism has dispensed with. It is not only that liberalism has had some good effects (which even Deneen acknowledges), but that liberalism is more complex and divided than he gives it credit for.
Despite these difficulties in Deneen’s case against liberalism, this is an essential book as we contemplate the future. Few readers will agree with everything in it, but even fewer will, if engaged in honest inquiry, fail to be informed and edified by it. A book that thoroughly comforts its readers and confirms their preconceptions is superfluous, and we should all face the questions Deneen raises. They are perhaps the deepest questions about our liberal politics and culture: Can liberalism be saved? Should it?