Saving Liberty from Liberalism

Inside the Thomas Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C. (Photo: John Bilous/Dreamstime)
Patrick Deneen’s new book explores the defects of the liberal order.

What if the anxieties, tensions, and ill feelings of contemporary politics were not a departure from liberalism but its culmination? That’s the central claim of Notre Dame political theorist Patrick J. Deneen’s bold and provocative new book, Why Liberalism Failed.

By “liberalism,” Deneen does not mean merely the political program of the Left. Instead, he is referring to the broader liberal order conceived of by John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, John Dewey, and others: the quest for individual autonomy and the transformation of nature in order to realize individual ambitions. He claims that this order has led to socioeconomic hyper-stratification, political alienation, the evisceration of education, and ecological devastation.

Deneen offers liberalism as the last survivor of the three major modern ideologies, the other two being fascism and communism. He argues that the quest for autonomy (to be independent and self-directing) is one of the driving forces of liberalism, which has come to define liberty as “the condition in which one can act freely in the sphere unconstrained by positive law.” This is in contrast to the classical view of liberty as self-rule and, thus, as “the learned capacity of human beings to conquer the slavish pursuit of base and hedonistic desire.” To Deneen, modern liberalism defines freedom as the absence of restraint, and takes attaining such a state as its primary purpose. The Right and Left — “conservatives” and “progressives” — might differ on what restraints should be dissolved, but both, he claims, make the liberal promise of autonomy a central goal.

However, Deneen says, there’s something paradoxical about liberalism. It claims to liberate us, but it ends up deracinating and confining us. It weakens local government and strengthens the hand of a national and increasingly inaccessible leviathan. It replaces diverse cultural practices with corporate, homogenized anti-culture. It undermines the liberal arts in education, making schooling either about ideological immersion or utilitarian training. And it creates forms of technology that isolate and alienate us.

Deneen points to contemporary cultural trends as the realization of liberalism. Culture wars have grown more factitious, partisan polarization has increased, and social trust has fallen. The federal government seems increasingly unresponsive, sclerotic, and dysfunctional. A robust public square has been replaced by a cyber no-mans-land where avatars and politicians war. He finds that this alienation is the natural result of liberalism’s attack on communal bonds. Cut off from cultural foundations, he claims, individuals invest more and more meaning in expansive national and international institutions, which they call upon to make them more “free.”

Some on both the left and the right — especially those who identify as “classical liberals” — might contest some of Deneen’s claims. They might argue that he makes autonomy too central to liberalism, underestimates some of the ideology’s other motives, or discounts too many of its positives. But the idea that there might be something unsettling at the heart of the modern liberal project is far from unprecedented. In the 19th century, Alexis de Tocqueville warned that some of the tenets of democratic liberalism could undermine the cultural practices upon which it depends. In Natural Right and History, the 20th-century philosopher Leo Strauss suggested that modern liberalism might have some troubling foundations. Deneen’s claim that “liberalism has drawn down on a preliberal inheritance and resources” that had sustained it is not too dissimilar from Irving Kristol’s suggestion that modern capitalism could end up cannibalizing some of the virtues that made political and economic freedom possible.

There are many things that could be said about this book, but an in-depth examination of Deneen’s suggestions at its end is a good place to start. He posits two possible futures for liberalism.

In one, the ideology would become increasingly autocratic, further betraying its purported promises while simultaneously realizing its true ideological imperatives. Autocratic liberalism would destroy liberty and democracy in order to save them. It “would increasingly resort to imposing the liberal order by fiat. . . . End runs around democratic and populist discontent have already become the norm, and backstopping the liberal order is the ever more visible power of the massive ‘deep state.’”

However, Deneen says, there’s something paradoxical about liberalism. It claims to liberate us, but it ends up deracinating and confining us.

In the other, Deneen imagines a “postliberal alternative” of some sort. The phrase is vague enough that it could mean the rule of despotic strongmen, but it doesn’t have to mean that. In fact, the closing pages of the book sketch out the elements of something more hopeful: the cultivation of local communities and markets, self-rule at the local level, education in deeper cultural traditions, and training in practical skills. His vision here has considerable harmony with Rod Dreher’s proposal of a “Benedict Option,” to which he even refers.

At the risk of sounding either hopelessly vulgar or insanely naive, I might suggest that there could be a third option: recovering intellectual traditions and cultural practices that counteract some of liberalism’s corrosive effects while keeping the many of its practices and forms — political liberty, the market, and so forth — that remain a positive force in American society. This option would not premise elections, limited government, and economic and political freedoms on the need for complete personal autonomy. Instead, it would offer defenses of many of the institutions and practices championed by liberalism — but it would ground those defenses on appeals to the common good, duty, ethics, and other principles. As Deneen notes, liberalism drew from many pre-liberal practices in the West and speaks to many valuable and enduring ideals. The task of this third approach — for fun, let’s call it the “Tocqueville Option” — would be to cultivate alternative cultural traditions in order to preserve the positive elements of liberal institutions and practices. It could start with the rehabilitation of the ancient conception of liberty to which Deneen draws attention: the claim that true liberty is self-rule and the moderation, ethical maturation, and robust sense of community it requires, rather than the mere absence of restraints on the gratification of desire.

This project has an arguable historical precedent: American history. When touring the 19th-century United States, Tocqueville noted the tendencies of alienation incipient in liberal protomodernity, but he also found that there were traditions, especially religious ones, that resisted those alienating effects.

Indeed, while some have argued that the United States is the embodiment of liberalism, we should not forget the fact that alternative traditions permeate American history and culture. Emphasizing religious obligations and community, the Puritans who settled New England were far from proponents of radical autonomy. Some Founders (such as Thomas Jefferson) might have embraced some of the imperatives of ideological liberalism, but others resisted. When John Adams wrote in a 1776 letter that “it is Religion and Morality alone, which can establish the Principles upon which Freedom can securely stand,” he gave voice to a tradition of American politics that insisted political life needs a moral basis. Tellingly, 19th-century American debates about slavery did not only focus on the way the practice could impinge upon the autonomy of the individual. They also (think of Uncle Tom’s Cabin) emphasized the way that it destroyed the family, an institution that makes manifest the hollowness of the promises of radical autonomy. (We often do not choose our family members, but our familial commitments give a profound meaning to our lives.)

Nor is resistance to the corrosive elements of ideological liberalism confined to American politics. Many canonical American writers have critiqued the imperatives of liberalism in their works — at times, savagely. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s profound sense of history and moral evil undercuts many of the claims of autonomy. Perhaps one of the sharpest critiques of the radical liberal autonomy can be found in the novels of Herman Melville, including Moby-Dick and The Confidence-Man. Contemporary culture also exhibits resistance to ideology’s hollowing-out tendencies. The early-2000s HBO series The Wire exposed the spiritual costs of neoliberal dislocation and alienation to great acclaim. Even hipsters’ interests in locally sourced foods and “artisanal” culture more broadly are signs of an urge to return to community.

One could argue that these very resistant trends have helped the United States achieve some of the nobler promises of liberalism — that the U.S. has realized great economic vitality and political freedom in part because of the thick bonds of community, place, religion, and ethical duty. The Puritan Roger Williams, for one, championed a vision of religious tolerance more robust than that of more conventional European liberals such as John Locke (who wrote that Catholics and atheists did not deserve religious toleration) and Karl Popper (who called for the crushing of intolerant viewpoints). And the United States as a whole enjoys a freedom of speech more vigorous than that of many European nations even to this day. Far from undermining civic liberties, robust religious traditions have helped strengthen and expand them.

The Tocqueville Option would nurture the institutional and procedural inheritances of liberalism in the service of other ends. For instance, traditionalist Catholics, the Hasidim, and the Amish might oppose the enterprise of radical autonomy from their own distinct perspectives, but they also all benefit from a political order that stresses pluralism and religious tolerance. Especially as secularists grow ever more intolerant, the faithful have an incentive to champion this nation’s abiding commitment to tolerance. One doesn’t have to subscribe to liberal modernity’s “joyless quest for joy” (to use Strauss’s phrase) in order to support free markets, democratic elections, and political freedoms. Unlike certain variants of postliberalism, the Tocqueville Option acknowledges that many elements of the liberal order are worth preserving, even if some of the premises of liberalism warrant correction.

We can argue about whether this rehabilitative project would be about changing liberalism into something new or simply about cultivating a cultural counterbalance to certain of its existing tendencies. I suppose it depends upon your definition of liberalism. But the Tocqueville Option might not necessarily be too far removed from some of Deneen’s thinking about liberalism. He writes that “the desire to ‘return’ to a preliberal age must be eschewed. We must build upon those achievements [of liberalism] while abandoning the foundational reasons for [liberalism’s] failure.”

Like some other critics of liberalism, Deneen suggests that the defense of liberty might require more than liberalism can provide. He draws attention to the way that the quest for radical autonomy can end up shredding the rich communal textures that are prerequisites of political freedom. He’s also attentive to the ways in which such a quest can also end up hollowing out the individual: Full human flowering, after all, requires more than the thin topsoil of egoism. But most of all, Why Liberalism Failed takes up the always necessary, increasingly urgent task of locating the deeper intellectual and cultural traditions that shape our everyday lives. In the aftermath of the 2016 election, the fate of “liberalism” has been the subject of much anxiety, but also much productive debate. Deneen’s book casts an informative light on the stakes and assumptions of that debate.


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