Why Liberalism Failed by Patrick J. Deneen (Yale University Press, $39, 225 pages)
Works about the bankruptcy of current day liberal ideology are a fairly common subgenre in traditionalist or conservative writing. Nevertheless, Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed stands out in this field. Deneen, a political science professor at the University of Notre Dame, traces liberalism’s errors back to its founding thinkers, notably Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Descartes, Kant, and Francis Bacon. According to Deneen, these thinkers re-defined the classical and medieval conception of “liberty” as self-restraint, to an outlook that saw “liberty” as simply doing what one wants to do as long as one does not physically harm others. Liberalism also repudiated notions of “the natural” and declared war against nature, in the name of human liberation and creating prosperity through technology.
According to Deneen, the American founding was a crystallization of pure liberalism, and the U.S. polity has been characterized by a debate between right-wing liberals (who idolize “the market”) and left-wing liberals (who idolize “the state”). Deneen argues that the promotion of the market and the state go hand in hand, and, in fact, the more individualistic a society becomes, the more powerful the state will become. He also argues that, in the early stages of liberalism, state power was used to create a market economy. The state grows ever more powerful in liberalism, because the intermediary institutions that give meaning to people are continually undermined, and only an ever more powerful state can regulate the lives of individuals who are bereft of self-restraint.
Deneen argues that modern liberalism faces bankruptcy because it has succeeded too well, devouring the pre-liberal residues that allowed society to function on a day-to-day basis, while at the same time wrecking nature for the sake of an economic prosperity that is ultimately unsustainable.
Deneen calls liberalism an “anticulture” since it has unmoored itself from time, place, and family. Deneen rightly notes that “culture” must be something built up over time, from generation to generation.
Deneen also ties liberalism to the problem of burgeoning technology, which under liberalism, appears as an uncontrollable force and destiny. He argues that much of the current-day sense of “inevitability” of technology arises from its special role and place in liberal ideology. In a post-liberal society, technology might assume less saliency in the social landscape.
In his discussion of the liberal arts, Deneen claims that the traditional liberal arts were meant to inculcate self-restraint (the true definition of liberty), whereas today, they are meant to reinforce the autonomy of the individual: “To the extent that a fully realized liberalism undermines culture and cultivation into liberty as a form of self-governance, an education for free people is displaced by an education that makes liberal individuals servants to the end of untutored appetite, restlessness, and technical mastery of the natural world. Liberal education is replaced with servile education.” Left without a real mission, the liberal arts are becoming less and less important in today’s academy.
Deneen also discusses “the new aristocracy” which liberalism has created. Liberalism has actually increased inequality in society. He says that the creation of a new aristocracy was actually part of the plan of classical liberalism, and was also endorsed by John Stuart Mill. This new aristocracy would be made tolerable by the notion that any person could ascend into it, and become accepted due to the more universal increase in prosperity created by technological mastery of nature. Today, however, the liberal elite is mostly hereditary, and the plunder of nature for the sake of the consumer society is becoming increasingly unsustainable.
Deneen also unpacks the term “liberal democracy” noting the disdain of many liberals for real democracy – which they sometimes characterize as “illiberal democracy.” He suggests that liberalism may try to uphold itself through quasi-totalitarian means, when its failures become widely manifest. Another alternative would be a “strongman” or military government. However, he hopes for a more organic evolution to a better society. He also argues that “the practice” of living in a real community is more important than a “theory” of a post-liberal system.
In his concluding chapter, Deneen expresses the hope that we will be able to build “liberty after liberalism.” He suggests trying to build up local networks of resistance, along the lines suggested by Rod Dreher in The Benedict Option.
This reviewer is impressed with the boldness of Deneen’s thesis. However, he does not feel that in Canada (for example) it is all that obvious that liberalism is a bankrupt ideology. He also thinks that the upholding of liberalism by quasi-totalitarian means is a very likely possibility in Canada. Social conservative resistance to the current system must continue, but it is likely that things will have to get a lot worse, before they might eventually get better.
Deneen does not discuss such things as mass, dissimilar immigration, which might have incalculable and far-reaching consequences, especially for the future of Canada. He also tends to downplay the issues of extreme minority alienation, for the putative restoration of some sense of locality and community in North America.
Mark Wegierski is a Toronto-based writer and historical researcher.