Patrick Deneen Explains Why Liberalism Failed

Extreme freedom can’t be expected to lead to anything but a change to extreme slavery, whether for a private individual or for a city.   ∼ Plato’s Republic, Book VIII line 566

The capacity for self-criticism used to be a signature characteristic of the liberal mind, but clearly liberal introspection isn’t what it used to be. In looking for explanations for the 2016 election, outlets like the Huffington Post and National Public Radio are perfectly willing to consider Russian hackers, Alt-Right conspiracies, and for all I know albino Opus Dei operatives. What they are less willing to consider is the possibility that their defeat is their own fault, that bugs or even inherent flaws in liberal theory make radical disruptions like Trump and Brexit possible, maybe inevitable. To be fair, of course, the conservative establishment seems if anything more reluctant to learn anything from recent upheavals. Speeches by GOP stalwarts like John McCain suggest that such proponents of global democratic revolution would rather see perpetual rule by the Democratic Party than any widespread and earnest questioning of the liberal democratic creed.

As Patrick Deneen of Notre Dame explains in the introduction to his new book Why Liberalism Failed, said creed has always rested upon the proposition that a complete break could be made with the past, that “political society could be grounded on a different footing” than those found in tradition-oriented societies.

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conceived humans as rights-bearing individuals who could fashion and pursue for themselves their own version of the good life. Opportunities for liberty were best afforded by a limited government devoted to “securing rights,” along with a free-market economic system that gave space for individual initiative and ambition. Political legitimacy was grounded on a shared belief in an originating “social contract” to which even newcomers could subscribe, ratified continuously by free and fair elections of responsive representatives.

To many Westerners this theory naturally sounds appealing, yet the contrast between the theory’s promises and the system we now inhabit is undeniable. In Deneen’s assessment, the discord and confusion of advanced liberal society cannot be blamed upon any particular leader or decision, nor can it be blamed upon insufficient zeal for liberalism’s founding principles. Rather, the spiritual and cultural calamity around us emerges necessarily from the process of replacing organic society with an abstract contract.

At one point Deneen notes the concept of “the noble lie”—a deceit that is ostensibly justified by its necessity for the social order—and hints that in the case of advanced liberalism the lie in question is Equality. Is it merely a coincidence that two American presidents have been named Bush, and that another Bush was a contender for the GOP nomination? Does anyone really believe that the young Chelsea Clinton growing up received no more advantages—and, in other respects, disadvantages—than does, say, a coal miner’s daughter? For that matter, is it really a good idea to always treat everybody in exactly the same way, or does such an approach leave out specific and inescapable obligations we have with respect to our own family, neighbors, elders, and countrymen?

Deneen suggests that a critical mass of such disturbing questions has been reached:

The “Noble Lie” of liberalism is shattering because it continues to be believed and defended by those who benefit from it, while it is increasingly seen as a lie, and not an especially noble one, by the new servant class that liberalism has produced. Discontent is growing among those who are told by their leaders that their policies will benefit them […] liberalism’s apologists regard pervasive discontent, political dysfunction, economic inequality, civic disconnection, and populist rejection as accidental problems disconnected from systemic causes, because their self-deception is generated by enormous reservoirs of self-interest in the maintenance of the present system. This divide will only widen, the crises will become more pronounced, the political duct tape and economic spray paint will increasingly fail to keep the house standing.

The liberal fixation upon indistinguishable rights-bearing individuals is what renders liberalism practically unsustainable and morally incoherent, for such a vision excludes the most critical relationships and dimensions of human life. We are not merely individuals, but are also sons or daughters or parents or siblings, Catholics or Protestants or Jews. Human beings cherish their membership in particular communities, traditions, and nations, and a system that refuses to take such profound commitments into account must in the long run prove dehumanizing. Even as liberalism further “liberates” individuals into increasingly formless, meaningless, and narcissistic isolation, it ignores “a deeper freedom, the freedom of intergenerational connections with the world and one another.”

Rather than produce our own cultures, grounded in local places, embedded in time, and usually developed from an inheritance from relatives, neighbors, and community—music, art, storytelling, food—we are more likely to consume prepackaged, market-tested, mass-marketed consumables, often branded in commercialized symbolism that masks that culture’s evisceration […] Whereas culture is an accumulation of local and historical experience and memory, liberal “culture” is the vacuum that remains when local experience has been eviscerated, memory is lost, and every place becomes every other place. A panoply of actual cultures is replaced by celebration of “multiculturism,” the reduction of actual cultural variety to liberal homogeneity loosely dressed in easily discarded native garb.

Deneen addresses the crisis of liberalism from every angle—from the cozy partnership between international financiers and the overbearing welfare state, to the diminishment of modern life by certain kinds of consumer technology, to the perversion of liberal arts education into a recruitment program for the global elite. Occasionally he sharply punctuates his observations with his experiences as an educator. Especially memorable is one faculty lounge conversation about the Amish:

We were discussing the practice of Rumspringa—literally, “running around”—a mandatory time of separation of young adults from the community during which they partake of the offerings of modern liberal society. The period of separation lasts usually about a year, at the end of which the young person must choose between the two worlds. An overwhelming number, approaching 90 percent, choose to return to be baptized and to accept norms and strictures of their community that forbid further enjoyment of the pleasure of liberal society. Some of my former colleagues took this as a sign that these young people were in fact not “choosing” as free individuals. One said, “We will have to consider ways of freeing them.” Perfect liberal consent requires perfectly liberated individuals, and the evidence that Amish youth were responding to the pull of family, community, and tradition marked them as unfree.

As Deneen observes, it is “chilling” to realize how prevalent such self-satisfied arrogance is among those to whom we entrust our young. It is also frustrating to see how few liberals are intellectually honest enough to admit that global liberalism is itself “a particular form of life, set of beliefs, and worldview,” into which the youths of liberal society are habituated well before they reach the age of reason, just as with the Amish. Absolute neutrality and objectivity is an absurd demand to place upon finite, embodied human beings, and this absurd demand has produced absurd results. What do liberals have instead of the Amish Rumspringa? Campus speech codes and “trigger warning” policies, meant to ensure that supposedly adult college students will never ever have to confront serious and open dissent from the liberal creed.

Whether we concur with Professor Deneen’s final judgments or no, Why Liberalism Failed is a must-read for anyone wishing to contribute to pivotal contemporary debates about religion, politics, law, and ethics. On almost every page can be found some remarkable and provocative quote. “Among the greatest challenges facing humanity is the ability to survive progress.” Thanks to liberalism, “everywhere, at every moment, we are to engage in experiments in living.” In the twenty-first century, “training at dorm parties and the fraternities of one’s college were the ideal preparation for a career in the mortgage bond market, and the financial frat party of Wall Street more generally,” for “the mortgage industry rested upon the financial equivalent of college ‘hookups’.”

I would not presume to recommend any changes to this outstanding and timely text, and only one addition—a fuller account of the authentic right. To be sure, gifted social democrats such as Wendell Berry, Christopher Lasch, and George Orwell can on occasion make extremely penetrating critiques of Western political trends, as can conflicted “conservative liberals” like Alexis de Tocqueville. Given that liberalism has from the beginning and by definition always been a movement originating from the left, however, rising young scholars who yearn to think outside the liberal box need to be shown that the traditional right is not the cesspool of hate and ignorance leftist propaganda depicts it to be.

For example and for whatever it’s worth, it seems to me that critics of liberalism working from the Catholic tradition should examine closely Pope Pius X’s insights upon the relationship between church and state, ultra-conservative Austrian diplomat Klemens von Metternich’s battle of wits against Napoleon Bonaparte, and Hungarian philosopher Thomas Molnar’s warnings about desacrilization and the resurgence of esoteric paganism. For that matter, we ought to also familiarize ourselves with the arguments for patriarchy made by John Locke’s arch-nemesis Sir Robert Filmer, with Richard Weaver’s synthesis of Platonic metaphysics and Southern agrarian principles, and with the tragic story of tsarist minister Pyotr Stolypin, whose attempt to forestall revolution via constructive reforms was thwarted by his assassination. When the situation calls for it, we should even be ready to draw insight from some of the Orient’s great alternative visions, such as those found in Confucius’s analects and Yukio Mishima’s existential novels.

This is not to say that the study of any of these or other non-liberal and anti-liberal figures should be made into the basis for yet another all-encompassing “ism.” Only God has a God’s-eye view, life is not an algebra problem to be solved by some ideological method, and as Deneen points out the temptation to treat politics as a precise, rationalistic science rather than as an art is itself what lured us into our current dilemma to begin with. No, the reason we should acquaint ourselves with counter-revolutionary perspectives is so that we may be liberated—from the narrow-mindedness of modern liberalism.


  • Jerry D. Salyer

    Jerry D. Salyer holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Aeronautics from Miami University and a Master of Arts from the Great Books Program of St. John’s College, Annapolis. A veteran of the US Navy, Mr. Salyer now works as an educator and as a freelance writer.

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