It seems everywhere you look in these heated days there’s a piece or a Twitter thread announcing the imminent collapse of liberalism and our coming cultural revolution. As cancel culture burns like wildfire through our institutions of cultural production, mobs topple statues and commercial thoroughfares in America periodically transform into looted wastelands, it may be of some use to undertake a measured analysis of Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, a short work of philosophy published three years ago which argues, in effect, that our present swell of upheaval is the natural end-point of modern liberal thought. His arguments are cogent and compelling, and liberals would do well to weigh them carefully to see if there is truth in them, and if so, what correctives may be applied to roll back the dire conclusions Deneen leads us to.
The core of Deneen’s argument is that the excision of virtue and community as governing pillars of political thought in the West has generated a polity of hyper-autonomous individuals detached from association, which has led in time to an atomised population sunk in nihilism and decadence and subjugated to an ever-expanding surveillance state.
This essay appears in the current Quadrant.
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The earlier chapters of the book set out the parameters of the argument by charting the shifts in Western political thought from ancient Greece to modern times. In Deneen’s interpretation, “the foundational texts of the Western political tradition focused especially on the question how to constrain the impulse to and assertions of tyranny, and characteristically settled upon the cultivation of virtue and self-rule as the key correctives to the tyrannical temptation”. A just regime depends on a just and righteous citizenry capable of self-mastery; one is not possible without the other and virtue is the element that binds the two together and extends the just regime from generation to generation. The cultivation of virtue, then, is the chief business of political philosophy for the ancients. Deneen further contends that the liberties we tend to associate with modern liberalism were not products of the minds of Locke and Hobbes, but rather have their roots in premodern Christianity:
The Roman and then medieval Christian philosophical traditions retained the Greek emphasis upon the cultivation of virtue as a central defense against tyranny, but also developed institutional forms that sought to check the power of leaders while (to varying degrees) opening routes to informal and sometimes formal expression of popular opinion in political rule. Many of the institutional forms of government that we today associate with liberalism were at least initially conceived and developed over long centuries preceding the modern age, including constitutionalism, separation of powers, separate spheres of church and state, rights and protections against arbitrary rule, federalism, rule of law, and limited government.
Modern liberalism, in Deneen’s interpretation, “colonised” Christian concepts of liberty and recast them into a revolutionary view of human beings, which Deneen terms “anthropological individualism”. By this he means the abstract notion of a particular state of nature upon which much of modern liberal theory is based. In this state, human beings are treated as autonomous units, wholly disconnected from one another, acting in rational and detached self-interest. Deneen argues that this was a fantasy, but one that was brought into being by liberalism:
In a reversal of the scientific method, what is advanced as a philosophical set of arguments is then instantiated in reality. The individual as a disembedded, self-interested economic actor didn’t exist in any actual state of nature but rather was the creation of an elaborate intervention by the incipient state in early modernity, at the beginnings of the liberal order.
The result is a revolution in human thought, consisting of three basic ideas that together form the core of modern liberalism. These are, to “redefine liberty as the liberation of humans from established authority, emancipation from arbitrary custom, culture, tradition, and the expansion of human power and dominion over nature through advancing scientific discovery and economic prosperity”. The chief effect of this revolution is “the loosening of social bonds in nearly every aspect of life—familial, neighborly, communal, religious, and even national”, which “reflects the advancing logic of liberalism and is the source of its deepest instability”. Deneen proceeds to delineate the variations of this instability, from economics to academia, for the remainder of the book.
These chapters present a troubling panorama of life in the West in the early twenty-first century, but one gets the sense that he is re-treading old ground. Robert Bork’s jeremiad Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline, published in 1996, delineates much of the same chaos and aesthetic degeneracy associated with expressive individualism. Indeed, the basic argument of the two books is the same. More recently, the novels of Michel Houellebecq give fictional form to the nightmare vision of atomised chaos adumbrated by Bork and Deneen. So Deneen’s work, though precise and brilliantly argued, is not original or particularly insightful.
While there is much to admire in Deneen’s book, there is also much to criticise. Three flaws in Deneen’s thinking come to mind. The first is his contention that the liberties we enjoy today have their roots in medieval Christianity rather than the liberal revolution ushered into the world by England in the seventeenth century. Deneen is making a specific claim about history, and it’s one that does not hold up to scrutiny. Deneen’s promised land seems to be something resembling a Christian democracy, one in which Christianity serves as the chief source of virtue and the centre of community in our democratic polity. His entire philosophical architecture depends upon the claim that Christianity can adequately protect individual liberty, and indeed, that Christianity served as the West’s true source code for the freedoms we enjoy today. Knock away this argument, and his work begins to look more like theocratic propaganda than a philosophy grounded in the realistic appraisal of history. Deneen does not reference any prime documents or source texts from the medieval period to support his claim, and his chief reference in support of this line of argument is the work of a philosopher named Charles Howard McIlwain. Though McIlwain’s work may be brilliant, the thought and opinion of one man are insufficient to secure such grand claims. What is demanded are source texts in which we can clearly see the emergence of liberal thought in medieval Europe. Deneen does not provide these, and one suspects that this is because there is in fact scant evidence for liberal thinking in the Christians who occupied Europe during the dark ages.
Second, Deneen’s contention that liberalism dismantles community and enervates association and attachment may be true of our contemporary era, but it was not true for so much of life leading up to our atomised present. It’s a common trick employed by anti-liberal thinkers to make liberalism out to be something that it is not. Liberalism is not licentiousness or hedonism, though these tendencies may be present in a liberal regime. Liberalism is merely a set of procedures and mechanisms designed to balkanise power and prevent the emergence of tyrannical government. Liberalism should not be deified, or treated as a kind of spiritual enterprise. If a liberal state degenerates into hyper-individualism, it seems to me that is less of a critique of liberalism than it is the failure of Christianity, or any concurrent spiritual system running alongside liberalism, to galvanise the population and keep a hold over its imagination. The vote to legalise abortion in Ireland demonstrates that Roman Catholicism no longer holds sway over the hearts and minds of that remarkable island nation. But is this because of liberalism’s destructive individualism, or perhaps some decay in the Catholic Church which has pushed the Irish into a post-Christian posture?
Finally, there is the problem of alternatives. Perhaps we’re in a transition moment, in which liberalism is being eclipsed by variations of authoritarianism as the common model of government and social relations. We in the West will likely live in authoritarian democracies, with some ostensible allegiance to liberal values, but in practical effect these will be minimal. This is not an original thought or insight. But the thought of it should fill us with terror, because there is no alternative to the liberal regime which is in any way attractive, or at least more attractive than our present liberal condition, even if one admits to its pervasive anomie and brutalised chaos. Whether it is the race-obsessives of the far Left or the far Right, the theocratic zealotry of Salafism, the kleptocracy of Putinism, or the digital Orwellianism being built line-by-line in China, all of it is dangerous to human dignity. Bluntly put, it is better to live in the spiritually deprived wastelands depicted in Houellebecq’s novels than to be a robot in some totalitarian system. The very worst of our liberal system is preferable to the very best of the others.
Deneen and his conservative compatriots are sensitive to the lack of purpose and meaning that sits at the heart of a de-Christianised West. It is this deep fear of spiritual nothingness that propels so much conservative criticism of liberalism. It’s a genuine and severe problem and we see its revolutionary effects all around us, particularly in the young. A good many young men and women need purpose and meaning in their lives, to think that they’re fighting for something, some grand enterprise more important than themselves. Those lucky enough to find spiritual satisfaction and meaning in their work may be inoculated from more heated desires. But many don’t, and will look elsewhere for meaning. Some will look for it in radical politics, some in religion, art or war. These last few months, we’ve had a glimpse of how this might go, with the concerted destruction and distortion of the Western historical record rippling across our cities and universities. Statues commemorating the West’s titans of democracy, from Winston Churchill to Ulysses S. Grant, have been vandalised and pulled down. A Year Zero impulse, inspired in part by the ferocity of the Black Lives Matter movement and in part by nihilism, fear and ignorance, shadows everything.
Has there being anything attractive about the last few months or so? Do we really want to trade away what we have at present for some unknown future, to be built presumably by febrile youth? To have been born in the liberal West in the second half of the twentieth century is the apotheosis of luck. Most of us luxuriated in the fruits of peace and prosperity without having to bleed for it. This remarkable luck produced its own form of decadence, and we saw it amplified in the bizarre and terrible year of 2020: the stunning lack of gratitude for what we have, the assumption that protected human freedom is the natural way of things, and the unthinking impulse to destroy things with the vague and untested certainty that there’s something better for us over the hill.
Though Deneen’s critiques are sharp and brilliant, and his book is a magnificent work of philosophy, he is a part of that decadence.
Liberalism is not merely individualism, or a substitute for Christian ethics. It is ordered power, splintered between competing actors, and implemented through restrained and regulated bureaucratic processes. It is the best means by which human beings can control and temper original sin, our impulse to dominate and demean other human beings.
We don’t yet know the full contours of the Biden regime, whether his administration will preserve and defend the liberal assumptions underpinning the West since the eighteenth century, or whether it will follow the zeitgeist of 2020 and shift into identitarianism.
In any case, President Trump’s squalid response to the election, in conjunction with the entire year of 2020, should encourage us not to be so quick to jettison the liberal ideal. The observable alternatives to it present some variant of delusion and hysteria.
Why Liberalism Failed
by Patrick Deneen
Yale University Press, 2018, 264 pages, US$18
Duncan Evans has an MA in United States Studies from the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. He has lived in Indonesia, working for the Jakarta Post as an editor, translator and writer, and is now the editor of the Indonesia section for Asia Options