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Patrick Deneen has entitled his book Why Liberalism Failed, but by his own analysis, he could have entitled it Why Liberalism Succeeded

Why Liberalism Failed by Patrick Deneen (248 pages, Yale University Press, 2018)

why liberalism failedIn his comprehensive condemnation of three hundred years of modern liberalism, Patrick Deneen at one point speaks of “advanced liberalism,” and describes it as “the ascent of the autonomous individual backed by the power of the state and its growing control over institutions.” Dr. Deneen has entitled his book Why Liberalism Failed, but by his own analysis, he could have entitled it Why Liberalism Succeeded.

Was liberalism so “advanced” at the conclusion of the first half of the twentieth century, that is, at the end of World War II? Or was there still somewhat of a balance between the autonomous individual and social norms, between community and the national government, and between the ancient and the modern conceptions of “liberty?” In the last seventy years, has there been a difference in kind in the implementation of liberalism’s “three basic revolutions of thought”—that is, per Dr. Deneen: 1) “liberation of humans from established authority,” 2) “emancipation from arbitrary culture and tradition,” and 3) “expansion of human power and dominion over nature through advancing scientific discovery and economic prosperity.” To discuss these questions, we can turn to Dr. Deneen’s chapters on technology, the liberal arts, and what he calls “anticulture.”

Will the reader permit this writer to offer a one-paragraph summary of American history since World War II? Politically and governmentally, the major events are the completion of the New Deal by Lyndon Johnson (Medicaid, Medicare, food stamps, etc.), Jimmy Carter (U.S. Department of Education), and Barack Obama (Obamacare). Economically and socially, it is the expansion of prosperity and materialism. Legally, it is the coming of judicial supremacy and the eclipse of legal equality by legal preferences and privileges. Socially, it is the sexual revolution of the 1960’s, the decline of marriage, and the rise of a seemingly permanent underclass. Morally, it is the rise of relativism and the decline of a common culture and moral values. Intellectually, it is the takeover of education by the valuelessness of post-modernism with the concomitant decline of the liberal arts and the study of the Western heritage. So: liberalism or advanced liberalism?

So, the old-fashioned liberalism of John Locke or advanced liberalism?

Culture and “Anticulture”

In his chapter on “anticulture,” Dr. Deneen proffers that insofar as “culture” is shared values, traditions, and ways of life, both institutional and private, the only “culture” that “remains today are celebrations of the liberal state and the liberal market.”

He argues that the new anticulture is based on the conquest of nature, and, indeed, human nature. He states that cultures are the human responses to the circumstances of life given to man by living in the natural world, with, in his words “customs and manners… understood to be derived from, governed by, and necessary to the realization of human nature.” According to Dr. Deneen, “culture” is “the interaction of man with nature, at once governed by it but also supplementing it with human ingenuity and invention.” With liberalism’s purpose of controlling—we might say “defeating” nature—the cultures that had grown up in harmony with nature were also defeated, wiped out.

Dr. Deneen cites Francis Bacon’s project of giving man power over nature. But he, perhaps, could have gone further, for Bacon and the scientific method may be the real sources—even more than liberalism—of the modern world. And it is not generally recognized that Bacon asserted that the conquest of nature, “the relief of man’s estate,” was a Christian project.

Dr. Deneen speaks of the change of the perception of time and the effect on culture caused by the “pervasive presentism” of liberalism. Dr. Deneen says that presentism—and its political expression, progressivism—is anticultural because culture is the record of “human experience over time.” The explicit premise of progressivism is that the latest is the best and the future will be even better. The premodern view of liberty was that it was cyclical. Today, it is regarded as linear. To Dr. Deneen’s point, we can add the observation that this is the calculated reason why liberals abandoned the word “liberal” and recast themselves as “progressives.”

With philosophical and political liberalism as the creator of the modern leviathan state, what it has swallowed is the culture of the local community and in the American context, the several states. We might note two contemporary proofs pertaining to political participation and to the media, perhaps the dominant “anti-cultural” institution of our time. Almost all media of any kind today is national media; local newspapers are almost extinct, and local radio stations are headed to the same fate. Elections where the only offices up for decision are local offices have a typical turnout of only twenty percent.

For all Americans today, the controlling economic necessity is having a “good job,” and that means moving to where the good jobs are. The modern, autonomous individual need not be from anywhere, and thus “liberalism values placelessness,” Dr. Deneen says. He extensively cites writer and poet Wendell Berry, who was among the first post-World-War-II writers to spread the alarm about the decline of community. Mr. Berry pointed out, per Dr. Deneen, that “the common good can be achieved only in small, local settings.” And even tight, well-functioning families cannot exist on their own, for “absent the supports of communal life, family life is hard pressed to flourish.

As for Dr. Deneen’s “celebrations of the liberal market,” there can no better example of advanced celebration than the current and increasing advocacy by both Democrats and Republicans that both so-called “medicinal” and so-called “recreational” marijuana would be economic boosts because they would produce jobs and bring in new taxes. The same was said about the spread of legal gambling three decades ago, and it will, of course, be said soon about prostitution.

Liberalism and Technology

The United States is the country of technology. Thomas Edison was not just the inventor of a society-changing technology, the electric light bulb, he was also a businessman who marketed his inventions and may have been the first person in history to have made “inventing” a full-time job. We Americans were the first people to have the automobile transform our cities and our countrysides. By comparison, even today in the developed European countries, there are still old rural towns and areas that have still not been transformed by the automobile.

In the age of advanced technology in which we now live, communications technology, unlike prior technologies, penetrates and occupies our minds and souls directly. Older technologies appealed only to the comforts and pleasures of our bodies. The latest electronic invention by a Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, or Mark Zuckerberg, all innovators and entrepreneurs in the classic American sense, becomes immediately “necessary” and just as quickly transforms society. Advanced technology justifies itself and, indeed, generates new versions of itself. But is all technology good? With the decline of general education, that is, the liberal arts (see below), we no longer have the intellectual means to subject technology to an objective and critical evaluation. For, as Aristotle says in Book I of the Ethics, “the good critic in general is the man with a general education.” The development of a general and critical faculty of mind was always the goal and the justification for the liberal arts.

Is technology the handmaid of liberalism, or is liberalism the handmaid of technology? What is the relation of advanced technology to advanced liberalism? In what may be the part of his book most challenging to political conservatives, Dr. Deneen, in criticizing “the new science of politics,” characterizes the Madisonian principle (in Federalist 51) that “ambition must be made to counter ambition” as “a new kind of political technology” and “an applied technology of liberal theory” that

replaces the ancient commendation of virtue and aspiration to the common good with self-interest, the unleashed ambition of individuals, an emphasis on private pursuits over concern for public weal, and an acquires ability to reconsider any relationships that limit our personal liberty.

We might also add Hamilton’s assertion in Federalist 9 that “the science of politics… like most other sciences, has received great improvements.” Thus, for Dr. Deneen, “the developments and aspirations” of technology have been shaped by these new standards of liberal theory. Technology depends on and is secondary to the “political and social norms and beliefs” that are advanced liberalism.

Liberalism and the Liberal Arts

In God and Man at Yale (1952), William Buckley criticized the collectivist and secular liberalism of his day that had taken over higher education. He did not include consideration of the liberal arts, per se. Before that, in the 1930’s, Robert Hutchins at the University of Chicago and Scott Buchanan and Stringfellow Barr at St. John’s College, Annapolis, Maryland, had instituted liberal arts curricula based on the Great Books of the Western world as a counter to the increasing emphasis on vocationalism in the American academy.

In 2017, a professor, a life-long political liberal, at Evergreen College, a public “liberal arts” college in the state of Washington, was persecuted and then run out of the college for not being liberal enough. Similar, widely-publicized happenings have occurred at other colleges, public and private. Is this “advanced liberalism” in the contemporary liberal arts?

In their classical conception and practice, the liberal arts aimed to form “liberal artists,” or men freed from ignorance and the slavery of passion. In Dr. Deneen’s words, the liberal arts, in consulting “the great works of our tradition,” had the purpose to teach “what it meant to be human, above all how to achieve freedom, not only from external restraint but from the tyranny of internal appetite and desire.” But, today, that is no longer possible because the liberal arts were grounded in that “premodern understanding of liberty.” Support for the liberal arts is now dying out because with the left’s emphasis on diversity, egalitarianism, sexual autonomy, and identity politics, the result is “ideologically homogeneity,” not critical thinking, “on nearly every campus.” So, again, as in other areas discussed by Dr. Deneen, it comes down to the “ascent of the autonomous individual backed by the power of the state and its growing control over institutions, including schools and universities.” On the other hand, conservatives, thinking that politicization has made the liberal arts a lost cause, are themselves assuring the death of the liberal arts by promoting STEM, economics, and business, and attention to academic majors that lead to “good jobs.”

As pointed out by previous reviewers and by discussion in the pages of The Imaginative Conservative, religion is not a major topic in Why Liberalism Failed. In addition, Patrick Deneen includes no chapter on, or general discussion of, the Constitution and the law. But, as for “advanced” legal liberalism, we need to look no farther than Obergefell, v. Hodges, the case in which the Supreme Court justified its invention of same-sex marriage by referring to “the concept of individual autonomy.” Literally, “autonomy” means “a law unto oneself,” and just as literally and by definition, it makes all constitutions, general laws, and community customs and norms, irrelevant. It is a word that occurs throughout Why Liberalism Failed.

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1 reply to this post
  1. The latter part of the section entitled, “Liberalism and Technology,” makes Deneen seem unreasonable, unless I totally misunderstand him. That is, his criticism of Madison seems totally off-base and appears to deny that there is anything to be learned from the study of constitutional political economy. Dismissing the attempts to take human nature as given and design governing institutions with it in mind as “replac[ing] the ancient commendation of virtue and aspiration to the common good with self-interest” is essentially saying that the key to good governance is hoping for a benevolent despot. I don’t know how else to interpret it. I also don’t see why conservatives, who tend to accept the idea of man’s fallen nature, should be challenged by Deneen’s criticism. Attempting to create a government in which ambition counteracts ambition is not for the purpose of promoting self interest over the common good, but acknowledges the reality that hoping that politicians will sacrifice their own interests in pursuit of the common good is utter foolishness.

    Another problem that seems to plague Deneen, as well as this article, is the failure to distinguish between classical liberalism and progressivism, as well as the conflation of the status quo with liberalism per se. I wish we would be more careful to isolate what we are talking about.

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