“Liberal theorists failed to recognize that traditional culture, embedded in heritage, custom, place, community, and shared values, provided essential psychological nutrients, without which human beings cannot thrive and may well turn monstrous…the key, for Deneen, is to rebuild small scale community.” – from Ron Miller’s book review of Patrick J. Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed.
In trying to understand why the noble experiment of U.S. democracy has so tragically gone off the rails, we have our choice among a host of critical analyses, from numerous (and often contradictory) points of view. Occasionally we find a compelling and particularly insightful critique, one which probes deeply into the cultural sources of the United States’ decline. Patrick Deneen’s recently published Why Liberalism Failed is one of these valuable works.
Deneen is a political scientist at Notre Dame whose previous books include Democratic Faith, Conserving America, and The Odyssey of Political Theory. By “liberalism” he does not mean simply contemporary “liberals,” but the founding ideology of modern western societies, the common intellectual source of today’s “conservatives” (aka “classical liberals”) as well. He revisits the worldview expounded by early modern thinkers such as Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, Rene Descartes and John Locke, and shows that in their urgency to liberate individuals from the restrictive authority of monarchy, religion, custom, and local cultures, they enshrined an image of the human being as a self-creating, autonomous, materialistic maximizer of self-interest.
The “state of nature” hypothesized by these theorists portrayed individuals as detached, nonrelational, amoral entities who may rationally agree, through a “social contract,” to collective governance to protect their own interests, but have no other formative social bonds. The rational, self-determining modern person supposedly has little need for the education, care, or nurturing that are provided by stable cultural institutions such as family and community. Deneen calls this viewpoint “privatism” and asserts that it is the fatal flaw of liberal ideology.
Why is it a flaw? Haven’t we celebrated personal freedom and individual rights as the crowning achievement of modern western civilization? Deneen argues that there was a severe, unacknowledged cost to pay for this freedom. Liberal theorists failed to recognize that traditional culture, embedded in heritage, custom, place, community, and shared values, provided essential psychological nutrients, without which human beings cannot thrive and may well turn monstrous. For a few centuries, Deneen says, traditional cultural forms remained intact enough to restrain the worst effects of privatism, but in the end—in our time—liberalism has triumphed over them, and the results are on display in the degradation of the natural world, extreme economic inequality, and the growing sense among the mass of citizens that while they are free as consumers, they have no control over the massive political and economic forces that define their world.
In other words, liberalism’s success planted the seeds of its own destruction, so that today “its vision of human liberty seems increasingly to be a taunt rather than a promise.” The more autonomous we become, the more subject are we to impersonal forces such as the state, the market, globalization and technology. Deneen emphasizes in many passages that in the absence of traditional and local culture, the only power capable of maintaining social order is the state, in the form of abstract legal structures, bureaucracy, surveillance and police. This is the end result of an ideology promoting autonomous selves engaged only in contractual relationships. Deneen claims that under liberalism, the apparatus of the state is a necessary complement to the “free” market; today’s liberals and conservatives argue over their proper proportion, but in this atomized, contractual society, the individual and the state are in symbiosis. And the power of the state only grows, because liberalism “insists on the priority of the largest unit over the smallest, and seeks everywhere to impose a homogenous standard on a world of particularity and diversity.”
Deneen argues that this “statist individualism” was woven into the fabric of U.S. government from the beginning. Examining passages from The Federalist Papers, he asserts that the founders deliberately sought to wrest citizens’ loyalty from local community to a distant, centralized state by appealing to their private material interests. Through commerce and war (i.e., imperialism), a stronger national government would provide goodies to seduce people into leaving their parochial cultures behind. While in important ways the Jeffersonian position stood against this centralist tide, Deneen suggests that even Jefferson, a disciple of Bacon and Locke, promoted the ultimately corrosive values of liberal, statist, or “possessive” individualism.
This promise of material wealth and personal gratification has fueled modern consumers’ insatiable quest for more and more stuff, and this in turn drives the imperative for unceasing economic growth, with all the resource exploitation, colonialism and global capitalism this involves. From Bacon on, liberalism’s approach to the natural world has been to “torture” it, to ruthlessly extract its secrets and its resources. We have gained astounding control of nature through science and technology, but, says Deneen, our mounting environmental crises, including climate change, “are signs of battles won but a war being lost.” He concludes that “liberalism’s endgame is unsustainable in every respect.”
How might we reconceive the social order, then? The author begins by reminding his readers of the original meaning of “liberty,” as it was construed by the ancient Greeks and Romans and medieval Christian thought. Liberty meant self-discipline, the control of base impulses and insatiable appetites which are endemic to human nature. True freedom arises from mastery of oneself, which is virtue, and there can be no good society or polity unless citizens are educated in virtue. Deneen argues that this education is the purpose of culture, those authoritative social practices rooted in tradition, heritage, place, and hard won wisdom. By denigrating and dismissing the restraints involved in this cultivation, liberalism cast individuals adrift in a fragile society, their “liberty” a hollow shell of the self-realization possible in an authentic culture.
Deneen is no partisan; he sees the dangers in the globalized “free” market and imperial militarism no less than in progressive utopian statism. If anything, he might be considered a “paleo” conservative, in the same ballpark as Wendell Berry, whom he quotes frequently and obviously admires. This shows, too, in his repeated endorsement of religion and of the “great books” of ancient times as essential elements of a healthy culture. In his discussions of higher education, sexual freedom, technology, and other issues, he reveals himself to be profoundly uncomfortable with the society liberalism has made. He looks to the past, but does not give enough attention to the evils of the preliberal world—slavery, subjugation of women, horrific religious warfare and persecution, to name a few. Yet his critique should not be dismissed as simply reactionary: After bashing liberalism for 180 pages, he does admit that its emphasis on human rights and dignity was a crucial achievement and ought to be retained in a postliberal culture. He warns against illiberal populism.
The key, for Deneen, is to rebuild small scale community. He wants to reclaim the ancient Greek notion of polis—“lives shared with a sense of common purpose, with obligations and gratitude arising from sorrows, hopes and joys, lived in generational time.” He says that we should not go out looking for a new ideology to replace liberalism, for ideology itself is the problem. We need “smaller, local forms of resistance: practices more than theories, the building of resilient new cultures against the anticulture of liberalism.” Deneen draws from Tocqueville’s observations, particularly his view that “the strength of free people resides in the local community. … He stressed that it was the nearness and immediacy of the township that made its citizens more likely to care and take an active interest not only in their own fates but in the shared fates of their fellow citizens.”
We in Vermont still enjoy significant remnants of this localist, more caring culture, this sense of place and of polis. It is what makes us different from the dominant American “anticulture” that Deneen describes. The “smaller, local forms of resistance” that he proposes exactly correspond to the vision of Vermont decentralists, those of us who have advocated for more self-reliance in food, energy, education, finance, media and political institutions. The call for an independent Vermont is, like Deneen’s critique, not a partisan reaction to specific government policies or personalities, but a recognition that the foundational worldview of the American empire has reached its destructive and tragic endgame. Whether we call this worldview “liberalism” or something else, Deneen’s book clearly articulates the holistic concerns of the decentralist critique.
Why Liberalism Failed; authored by Patrick J. Deneen (Yale University Press), 2018.
Reviewed by Ron Miller; Woodstock, Vermont.
Ron Miller coordinates and teaches for the Learning Lab, a lifelong education program in Woodstock, Vermont, and is co-editor of Vermont Independence Press’ 2012 anthology Most Likely to Secede.