Politics & Policy

We Still Need Liberalism

A visitor passes sculptures from the Parthenon at the Acropolis museum in Athens, Greece, in 2013. (Yorgos Karahalis/Reuters)
Patrick Deneen’s critique of liberalism exhibits an undue nostalgia for the past and ingratitude for the virtues of the present.

In Why Liberalism Failed, Patrick Deneen combines Marxist economic protestations with social-conservative moral sensibilities to produce a critique of the classical liberal project. Deneen argues that our society’s ills — its colossal income inequality, its demolition of civic associations, its scorn for faith and family and tradition — are caused by the success of liberal theory. Ancient Greek and early Christian political philosophy defined “liberty” as the capacity to cultivate virtue in order to govern one’s self and one’s city with restraint; Deneen writes approvingly of this conception of liberty. Classical liberalism, however, advanced a new understanding of liberty, seeking to define it as the ability to live and act unfettered by arbitrary legal power or oppressive social customs. As the modern definition of liberty won out over the ancient one — in other words, as liberalism succeeded — new societal pathologies were engendered. Having been created by the liberal framework, these pathologies cannot in the end be solved within it. Such is Deneen’s indictment.

Why Liberalism Failed is not the first book of its kind. Nor will it be the last. Demand for works that hail the imminent demise of our society is seemingly insatiable. For decades, perhaps centuries, there has existed in our intellectual life a class of cultural declinists, typically though not exclusively conservative, who have lost all hope in society’s ability to cope with the challenges it faces.

Richard Posner provides the definitive rebuttal to Deneen’s pessimist co-thinkers in his 2002 book Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline. The entire work is a masterly piece of scholarship; it contains a devastating chapter on declinist literature that is here of particular interest. In that chapter, fittingly entitled “The Jeremiah School,” Posner eviscerates the declinist commentators of the late 1990s, including Robert Bork, Christopher Lasch, and Gertrude Himmelfarb. Nearly 20 years later, his central critiques can be readily extended to Why Liberalism Failed.

Posner, first, keenly observes that all “declinist works get much of their rhetorical force from contrasting an idealized past, its vices overlooked, with a demonized present, its virtues overlooked.” Deneen’s book is an excellent example of such myopia.

While Deneen effusively praises the ancient forms of political philosophy, singling out especially the Greek cultivation of Aristotelian virtue, he largely elides the troublesome aspects of ancient Greek society — in particular its approval of slavery, its unbelievably cruel and at times genocidal wars (Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War is not an easy read), and its indifference to the condition of women. A fastidious reader might be willing to forgive these omissions if Deneen gave due credit to liberalism’s triumphs. He does no such thing; rather, he dons horse-blinders and laments the defeat of ancient political theory without making any concessions. Of course, he is under no obligation to endorse liberalism despite its having separated church from state, contributed to slavery’s abolition, expanded democratic freedoms, secured private property, and legally emancipated minorities and women. But he certainly should feel compelled to acknowledge these great instances of moral progress before attempting to draw contrasts between modern vices and ancient virtues.

Deneen’s response to the moral progress of recent centuries is to disregard it. For instance, one is dismayed to discover that insofar as Deneen treats the question of women’s emancipation under liberalism it is to argue that liberalism has made the female condition worse. He writes:

[Liberalism’s] defenders often point to the liberation of women as a significant example of liberalism’s success, and regard any critique of liberalism as a proposal to thrust women back into preliberal bondage. Yet the main practical achievement of this liberation of women has been to move many of them into the workforce of market capitalism. . . . Liberalism posits that freeing women from the household is tantamount to liberation, but it effectively puts women and men alike into a far more encompassing bondage.

In any other book, such a remark would stick out as the wrongheaded synthesis of a retrograde conservatism with the tendentious feminist-Marxism that it is; in Deneen’s, the passage is only the worst offense in a more general pattern of undue nostalgia for the past and ingratitude for the present. Deneen appears to seriously subscribe to the notion that the constraints placed on women today are more oppressive than those of bygone eras. Legal prohibitions against marital rape and sexual discrimination, the extension to women of property and the franchise — for Deneen, these are unimpressive developments because women are now forced to participate in the capitalist labor force. That women were treated like chattel in the Homeric epics and dismissed with contempt by innumerable pre-Enlightenment philosophers (see: Plato’s Symposium) does not weigh heavily in Deneen’s calculation. Sure: One could make a compelling case that the ancient philosophers were sexist only within the context of the ancient world, which was itself generally sexist. But to say that women are “in a far more encompassing bondage” now than then is preposterous.

I do not mean to tear apart an ill-considered passage simply because it can be made short work of. My point is that Deneen appears to be wholly unwilling to recognize the moral and material advances of modernity. He betrays no sign of appreciation for liberal accomplishments.

Instead, he mounts only criticism. For Deneen, the most significant consequences of liberalism have been negative. It creates technologies (such as cellphones) that make us lonely. It creates institutions that alienate us. It dissociates us from distant state and market systems over which we have little control.

Deneen’s crippling shortsightedness about the defects of the present and the merits of the past yields an unbalanced diagnosis.

There’s some truth to such claims. But one can make measured criticisms of liberalism’s problems without Deneen’s overblown rhetoric, unsubstantiated assertions, and careless generalizations. Examples of these impulses permeate Why Liberalism Failed. For instance, Deneen suggests that hook-up culture and cellphone addiction are signs of civilizational collapse. He argues that “[liberalism is making us] increasingly separate, autonomous, nonrelational selves replete with rights and defined by our liberty, but insecure, powerless, afraid, and alone.” (Specificity is not offered.) He writes that “in schools, norms of modesty, comportment, and academic honesty are replaced by widespread lawlessness and cheating.” (He provides no statistics showing that cheating today is worse than it was in the past.) He writes that “citizens under liberalism are assured of our civic potency while experiencing political weakness and engaging in infinite acts of choice that are only deeper expressions of thralldom.” (For Deneen, then, choice is slavery.)

Given the ambitions of Why Liberalism Failed, one expects a higher standard of evidence than is actually offered. The book is bereft of data, relying too heavily on indifference to detail even as it welcomes the end of the political system responsible for the material prosperity and political freedoms that Western societies enjoy.

Deneen’s crippling shortsightedness about the defects of the present and the merits of the past yields an unbalanced diagnosis. But set that aside for a moment. Another crucial line of thought underpinning the critiques in Why Liberalism Failed is a certain type of anxiety over the withering away of religion’s influence in public life. Here Deneen’s concern is not without justification: Religious organizations, the sociologist Robert Putnam has shown, have historically accounted for the overwhelming bulk of civic association and civic engagement in America. Deneen, therefore, rightly worries that as popular religion frays so too will the broader social fabric.

Now, I am not sure the higher purpose that religion offers its adherents can ever be replaced by any other human enterprise. Nor do I discount religion’s positive contributions to the building of community, or to the development of our culture. I am just not convinced that there was ever a way for religiosity to have fully survived Charles Darwin. Even if secularization is in some ways undesirable, it is at least partly inevitable. Most of Europe, for one, has renounced Christianity. Deneen mourns the death of God, and understandably so, but as a political theorist in modern society he cannot just assume that the strength of organized religion can be easily regenerated. He must grapple with, rather than just complain about, the rise of secularism. And his inability to cope with it, ironically enough, serves to demonstrate the wisdom of liberalism — for part of liberalism’s genius is that its pluralistic capacity to foster freedom of association can incorporate  atheists and people of faith into the same body politic.

Which brings us, at last, to Deneen’s roadmap for liberation from liberalism. Against “a political philosophy that was launched to foster greater equity . . . and . . . expand liberty, [but] which in practice generates titanic inequality, enforces uniformity and homogeneity, fosters material and spiritual degradation, and undermines freedom,” Deneen makes three propositions.

First, he argues that liberalism’s achievements must be acknowledged; there can be no return to a utopian preliberal age, for such an age never existed. (Alas, Deneen himself never explicitly acknowledges any of liberalism’s achievements, even in the realm of women’s liberation, as we’ve seen.) Second, he suggests that “we must outgrow the age of ideology.” All-encompassing theories such as Marxism must be discarded. Third, he longs for a postliberal order that would entail a return to faith-based and family-centered associations organized around local governments. Smaller communities would develop the culture necessary to live truly fulfilling lives and rid the world of liberalism’s alienating nature.

If Deneen’s analysis of liberalism’s failures rested on shaky premises, his alternative to our extant political system manages to be even less persuasive. To borrow from what Posner wrote about Gertrude Himmelfarb’s declinist pessimism: Deneen “doesn’t consider whether [his proposed society] would rise to the challenges of modernity.” How would Deneen’s townships and city councils handle today’s patterns of mass migration (from Mexico to the U.S., from North Africa to Europe, etc.)? Today’s breakneck pace of technological advancement? Today’s enormous flows of capital and investment? International epidemics? Climate change? Terrorism? Hunger? War?

There is no going back to local life separated from world politics — global problems require global solutions. Deneen’s proposals are totally inadequate.

* **

I should end by saying that despite the criticism above, Deneen doesn’t have it all wrong. Why Liberalism Failed contains nuggets of truth. Even if our current predicaments are not nearly as dire as Deneen makes them out to be, we still are faced with serious quandaries. Perhaps chief among these quandaries, Deneen insightfully notices, is realizing that capitalist modernity must reform itself if it hopes to figure out both how to foster community and preserve the market, which creates prosperity, as well as the state, which enables stability.

Building communities in the modern age is no easy task; it is one to which both conservatives and progressives should devote their attentions. Conservatives should begin to care more about income and wealth inequality — issues on which conservatism and especially libertarianism have for a long time been effectively mute. A vastly unequal society, we on the right should recognize, is incompatible with social cohesion. Progressives, in turn, should not be hostile to the traditional aspects of our culture, such as faith and family; they are important community pillars. And while conservatives and progressives would both be served by reformulating and rethinking their defense of liberal principles in the face of new challenges, neither — in fact, nobody — would benefit from abandoning them.

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