Why Liberalism Failed

Why Liberalism Failed

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Pages: 264
First ed.: 2018
Author: Patrick J. Deneen, Professor of PoliSci at U. of Notre Dame

We are here in front of a stark critique of liberalism. Patrick Deneen, who calls himself a "postliberal," identifies what he thinks are the greatest pitfalls, problematic assumptions, and catastrophic consequences of what he calls "liberalism." His central claim is that all the problems that Western societies are facing today (expansion of the sphere of the state, technology that we cannot control, the dismantling of communities, loss of culture and tradition, the death of God, the abolition of the idea of a "common good," etc.) are all the result of the ideology of "liberalism."

“This book seeks to show that what is bemoaned by the right today is due not to the left but to the consequences of its own deepest commitments, especially liberal economics. And it seeks to show that what is bemoaned by the left is due not to the right but to the consequences of its own deepest commitments, especially to the dissolution of social norms, particularly those regarding sexual behavior and identity.”

The definition he gives of liberalism is arbitrary liberty to pursue whatever we desire, the encouragement of individualism and self-interest, and economic exchange as a priority over social, political, and religious life. He does not distinguish between Classical liberalism and Progressive liberalism; he just says that the latter is the natural continuation of the former.

What is interesting of the book is that Deneen makes some counterintuitive and provocative statements, for example, that liberalism advances statism. His is a Marxist idea of liberalism, one which asserts that

“The greatest current threat to liberalism lies not outside and beyond liberalism but within it.”

In Brief

As far as liberalism emphasizes freedom from any constraint, culture, tradition, and religion are seen as constraints and limits to individual development. Religion identifies good and blameful actions; social interactions are largely defined by culture. The only acceptable limitations for liberals, he argues, are those that individuals intentionally choose, and culture is not necessarily chosen and may not be suitable to rational self-interest; therefore, it shall be dismantled.

When culture is dismantled, social bonds and traditions are seen as individual limitations and are left behind; the state becomes the only source for securing individual rights, laws, and order. Associations and intermediate bodies (churches, schools, clubs) are dismantled as well; the state becomes the exclusive apparatus that can ensure social cooperation. This is Deneen’s major accusation: that liberalism increases statism; natural social bonds such as traditions and culture are replaced with the artificial bonds of the state.

Liberalism’s emphasis on individualism brings about the loosening of community and communal life, which is replaced by “networks.” Loose communities and networks are no more based on face-to-face interactions; they are more casual, and there is no individual commitment to others or to a greater good. Statism, Deneen argues, “arose as a violent reaction against this feeling of atomization” as people need, by nature, social and political bonds. The fact that liberalism demands individualism is against human nature, according to Deneen; therefore, it is based on “a false anthropology.” It is not by chance that liberal theorists such as Dewey were indeed interested in changing human nature and liberating it from its limits. 

When they emphasized individualism and freedom from cultural constraints, liberal thinkers were taking for granted that Western values would have resisted, as family and intermediate associations would:

“The health and continuity of families, schools, and communities were assumed, while their foundations were being philosophically undermined.”

What happened in the end was the opposite, he claims.

The result of Liberalism, that subtle ideology that “pretends neutrality” and “ingratiates by invitation to the easy liberties, diversions, and attractions of freedom, pleasure, and wealth,” is the opposite of the freedom that the ancient Greeks and classical authors were referring to. For them, freedom meant self-government and freedom from tyranny and insatiable desires, but to do so, virtue and respect for traditions and social norms were necessary.

Today, he argues:

  • Government is increasingly insulated from the people,
  • Virtue and traditions are seen merely as individual constraints because now we feel legitimate to pursue whatever we desire in the individual sphere,
  • Moral relativism dominates and claims that no customs, imperatives, rules, or norms are morally superior to others

It’s interesting here something that Deneen remarks: in the past, slavery meant be object of many desires, particularly those that could not be fulfilled, while today pursuing any desire is called freedom.

To reverse the course of the times, Deneen suggests going back to ancient-conservative ideals that take human nature as it is and emphasize the sense of community over that of individualism. He advocates for “a postliberal political theory that builds on the fact that human relationality, sociability, and the learned ability to sacrifice one’s narrow and personal interest not to abstract humanity, but for the sake of other humans.”


My Take Today

Deneen’s points are obviously provocative and interesting. He’s great in highlighting the consequences of absolute freedom that is legitimized today within the moral and private sphere, that probably have not been lengthily considered by liberal thinkers.

But what I understand from the book is that Deneen seems to be more interested in surveying today’s moral issues rather than really go back to its origins. The ideology of liberalism that he uses seems more a catch-all term, something that has become, in Orwell’s words, a package deal word, a meaningless word. Liberalism for him means absolute freedom, absolute individualism, and human engineering. Which is just not true. His definition is more a hodgepodge where classical liberals are confused with progressives, where Hayek is a “libertarian,” and where Adam Smith is depicted as an extremist laissez-faire advocate.

The book never touches how culture, traditions, and social bonds have been formed. According to Deneen, they were per se good and legitimate; they cannot be oppressive. But liberalism aims exactly at liberating men and women from hierarchy as it was an illegitimate form of power and order, merely based on force.

Classical liberals and Progressives are extremely different in regard to what they think on tradition, culture, human nature, and morality. Merely claiming that one followed the other as a reaction or continuity is too superficial. Lastly, the increase of impersonal relations at the expenses of community and personal relationships was a major force underlying economic progress, justice, commerce, and reduced prejudices towards foreigners.

Overall, I think he is 95% of the times referring to “liberals” as we now refer to progressives or American liberals (i.e., Democrats). It is not aimed at making clear origins, thinkers, and concepts of liberalism, rather at examining some problematic aspects of our times that we usually think as dogmas (democracy, freedom from any restraint, the praise for multiculturalism, moral relativism, etc.)