“So is Deneen right? Has liberalism failed? I think in the long run nothing wrought by the hand of man lasts forever. This includes political ideologies. We have a tendency to naturalize the world as it is and assume that things can never change.”
Patrick Deneen’s provocative new book Why Liberalism Failed is attracting the kind of attention that few academic works ever see. Even more unusually, it has enjoyed positive commentary from across the political spectrum. The National Review’s David French praised the book for making him “think” and presented an “alluring” vision of alternatives to the liberal order. The far left Jacobin opined that Deneen’s book is the rare piece of anti-capitalist writing by a conservative that offers a “bold and seasonable” overview of liberalism’s problems. The New York Times placed Why Liberalism Failed on its Book of the Times list and opined that “readers of all political stripes” could find something in the book that “rings true.”
These accolades belie the fact that Deneen’s book pivots around an extraordinary-almost unbelievable thesis: liberalism isn’t just in a crisis, it is on its deathbed. More radically still, according to Deneen liberalism is in the twilight of its life not because it failed, but because it has “succeeded” tremendously. This dialectical inversion is a claim worthy of Hegel or Marx, and it deserves to be treated with the same seriousness. That Deneen’s book has warranted such accolades testifies to the power of his argument, even if very few commentators so far have been willing to accept his very radical thesis that liberalism is on the way out. Indeed, that such an argument is even given serious—coming less than 30 years after Francis Fukuyama proclaimed liberalism had triumphed and brought the “end of history”—is a testament to the strange times we inhabit within post-modern, liberal culture.
The Meaninglessness of Partisanship
Deneen’s book is utterly unique in its steadfast unwillingness to situate itself within traditional political categories. In this age of hyper-partisan wrangling, where “liberal” is almost inevitably followed by “cuck” or “conservative” by “racist,” such an approach is an invigorating breath of fresh air. Or at least it would be if Deneen’s reasoning for such a position weren’t so damning.
Deneen opens his book by observing that of the three great ideologies, which defined the modern (now post-modern age)—fascism, communism, and liberalism—only the last and oldest remains ideologically convincing. Yet liberalism’s victory over its rivals is fundamentally pyrrhic. Far from entering Fukuyama’s utopian end of history, liberalism is on the ropes. And this is not the result of any given political party or movement who have mismanaged or undermined liberal society. It is not because Democrats don’t care —or because the British Conservatives decided to cut a few taxes and government services here and there. Indeed, to Deneen, the great political rivalries which battle for position within liberal societies are, at base, deeply superficial and not all that meaningful. Both are ultimately beholden to the same liberal reasoning, but they simply emphasize different means to achieve the same ends.
Conservatives believe that the free market and meritocracy is the best way to ensure a society that respects freedom and advances the human pursuit of pleasure. Progressives believe that a substantial amount of state intervention is needed to truly enable individuals to be free and pursue their sense of the good life. But on neither side of the political spectrum is the basic end of allowing freedom to pursue pleasure questioned. Only the means are contested, giving liberal political disputes an almost technical and pedantic quality to them. The “liberocrats” who ascribe such significance to differences in means don’t do so because they really are significant, but precisely because they are shallow and people needed to be agitated in caring about them. And according to Deneen, none of their policy tinkerings can actually evade the reality that liberalism is wracked by massive internal contradictions, which will ultimately lead to its downfall.
The Origins of Liberalism in Scientific Reason
So what evidence and arguments do Deneen give to ground such an immense claim? Ultimately, his empirical evidence tends to be presented in broad strokes, as perhaps it must be when trying to argue that liberalism itself has “failed.” This is a serious weakness of the book, since at times his evidence borders on the anecdotal. It is also excessively focused on the United States, as most books by American political scientists tend to be. But I shall not discuss these weaknesses here because the empirical details are largely secondary to the epochal narrative Deneen—a political theorist by training—is trying to tell. The book really comes to life when discussing the ideological characteristics and consistency of liberalism.
Firstly, Deneen follows other Roman Catholic thinkers such as George Grant and Alasdair Macintyre in developing a genealogy of liberal thought that goes further back in time than usual. To Deneen, the real founder of liberalism was not a proto-liberal like Thomas Hobbes or a contractarian like John Locke. J.S Mill, perhaps the quintessential liberal and sometime hero and villain to both the right (for his defense of free speech) and the left (for his distaste for traditionalism and support for women’s rights) is given, surprisingly short shrift.
“Nature became both an antagonist to overcome and a resource to be put to use.”
The real founder of liberalism was Francis Bacon (1561-1626), the English philosopher of science and tutor to Hobbes. According to Deneen, Bacon made explicit a radical change brewing within Western culture at the time. Deneen observes that previous generations of political thinkers—from Aristotle to Aquinas—saw human beings as limited natural beings who morally and harmoniously exist within a well ordered cosmos. On this model, our moral obligations throughout life were to fulfill the role God or nature had ordained for us in a virtuous manner. With Bacon, that all changed. Nature became both an antagonist to overcome and a resource to be put to use. Nature was responsible for disease, hunger, and ultimately death. But human reason was also capable of taking its resources and applying them to overcome these varied obstacles.
It did so by putting nature on the “rack” and forcing it to reveal its secrets through the application of the experimental method. For Deneen, this superficially academic shift belied an immense transformation that would eventually impact our very sense of what a human being was. We began to abandon the vision of ourselves as natural beings who were part of a harmonious and well-ordered world. Instead, we existed as singular individuals who needed to deploy their reasoning powers to get ahead through acquiring as many goods as we possibly could. The most effective way to do this is was through liberty, which at base Deneen conceives as a kind of power to do whatever we wish in the pursuit of our interests, with as little interference from either nature or other people as possible.
As this sense of ourselves and the demand for greater liberty to pursue our private desires became more entrenched, liberal political philosophies emerged to give it social expression. Thinkers like Hobbes and Locke came forward and argued that within the “state of nature,” human beings found themselves at the mercy of the various elements. They founded a political society to ensure both their political protection and to enable their freedom to pursue various forms of pleasure—and to acquire the means to do so more effectively. Hobbes and Locke both maintained that they were simply giving descriptive accounts of what human beings naturally were and how political society was actually established. But Deneen argues that this is a gross falsehood, one that still persists to this day (think of contemporary “Enlightenment” militants such as Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker). Liberalism didn’t describe people as they were. As its social power grew, liberalism aggressively remade them in its image.
For Deneen, this transition is both the source of liberalism’s power and the roots of its inevitable decline. The scientifically minded, freedom-loving, pleasure-seeking individuals liberalism created transformed the social world in line with their new political imperatives. Often times this had a positive impact. Liberalism annihilated many barriers to the progress of its worldview, including upending unwelcome sexual, ethnic, and racial hierarchies to a degree never before seen. It also brought about an increase in living standards by providing the political backdrop for the emergence of capitalist economics, which unleashed an industrial revolution which transforms our world to this day. And of course, in addition to annihilating its internal enemies within society, liberalism’s resilience allowed it to triumph in the long battles against Fascism and Communism in the 19th and 20th centuries. So why then is liberalism doomed? Deneen gives a myriad of reasons. Here I will focus on the two reasons which are most convincing.
Why Liberalism Failed
The first reason liberalism has failed is fundamental. Deneen observes that the political promise of liberalism has always been to provide full liberty for all. But to Deneen, this is ultimately impossible. This wasn’t due to some failure of liberalism to deliver, but because its own success will ultimately lead to the watering down of real civic and private freedom. As people demand more and more private liberty, they will also want more control over their environment. This will ultimately lead to the establishment of an ever-growing state to provide for our needs and to protect us from our limitations. Deneen argues that even the early liberal thinkers—Jefferson, Madison, Mill—foresaw this, which is why they often deliberately limited the democratic features which were to be incorporated into liberal political structures.
“Beyond such largely symbolic forms of political participation and freedom, liberal citizens have little actual control over what happens in their societies.”
Liberty for private individuals meant the freedom of citizens needed to be limited, and a new epistemic aristocracy established. In practice, this has meant that remote class of technocrats has taken charge to deliver the goods as efficiently as possible. Liberal politics is characterized by voting once every few years for the representatives of various political parties who have different visions of how best to provide people with the goods needed to overcome nature and its limitations. Beyond such largely symbolic forms of political participation and freedom, liberal citizens have little actual control over what happens in their societies. This isn’t a bug in liberalism. Limited political freedom is needed if liberty from the limitations imposed by nature is to be achieved as efficiently as possible.
This might make Deneen sound like some kind of small state conservative. But he is not, since the capitalist market is just as much a feature of liberal society, and therefore just as infected with fundamental tensions. This brings me to the second reason why liberalism has failed. Liberal markets—capitalism in other words—also make us more unequal and less free. This is perhaps the most shocking discussion in Deneen’s book. He observes how liberalism and capitalism proceeded to efface traditional cultures and mores—about sex, gender, and virtue—which stood in the way of commodification and consumption. The societies governed by such mores were often deeply, even intolerably, illiberal. But individuals within them were also governed by minimal governments and enjoyed a sense of real equality with others. Differences in lifestyle were fairly minimal, communities often helped their members get ahead in a non-competitive environment, and many felt themselves to be part of a shared culture with deep roots in the past.
Liberalism was predicated on a very risky socio-economic gamble. Early liberals knew that such traditional cultures and mores stood in the way of market expansion and that over time capitalization would lead to far greater economic inequality. Their gamble was both that liberal capitalism could successfully remake individuals in its own image, transforming them into competitive, isolated market actors. It would compensate for this flattening of culture and greater inequality by providing such a surfeit of goods to everyone at all ends of the economic hierarchy would apathetically come to accept liberal capitalism. Moreover, liberal citizens would gradually cede any and all rights and power to radically change the economic system. Political institutions would legally protect corporate power—whether operated by markets or the state—and stifle any efforts at the fundamental transformation that would seek to redistribute economic wealth and power.
Deneen invokes the work of Tyler Cowen, in his book Average is Over, as a spectator of what the future might hold for a liberalism on life support. Gradually liberal society will become so fragmented that only the richest and most successful 10 percent or so of citizens will enjoy real-life opportunities and the chance of civic involvement. The remaining lower classes will be bought off with cheap videogames and idle entertainment, while all the while shutting up and accepting their place in the political and economic order.
Deneen’s book concludes with the observation that, contrary to the clams of people like Cowen, we are not moving towards such an eternal liberal “utopia.” As the worrying election of Trump and other demagogues—what I have called post-modern conservatives—indicates is that the population is turning to radical and deeply illiberal movements, which will allow them to smash the current system at any costs. This has befuddled liberals on both the left and the right who secretly believed citizens could be endlessly bought off: either with a few patchwork welfare programs, or with cheap commodities, spectator entertainment, and fast food. Why Liberalism Failed ends with both a warning and a call for political theorists to help conceive of a new post-liberal future that retains the best features of liberalism while eschewing its fundamental problems and failures.
So is Deneen right? Has liberalism failed? I think in the long run nothing wrought by the hand of man lasts forever. This includes political ideologies. We have a tendency to naturalize the world as it is and assume that things can never change. That liberalism itself was a transformative force in history that emerged a scant four centuries ago—according to Deneen at least—is often unacknowledged by those who assume it has an eternal future ahead of itself. Whether it is true that liberalism has failed and is entering the winter of its life, Deneen’s book is a time rejoinder to such hubris and lack of imagination. Whether one is a liberal or not, we all should recognize that things could not go on the way they were indefinitely.
Matt McManus completed his PhD in socio-legal studies at York University. He is currently Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC De Monterrey. He is in the process of formalizing a deal for a second book, The Rise of Post-modern Conservatism. Matt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.