Notes on “Why Liberalism Failed”

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Frontispiece for Thomas Hobbes’ “Leviathan” (1651), which Deneen cites as one of the founding texts of liberalism.

Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed was one of the most widely discussed political books last year. In a crowded field of authors addressing the future of liberalism, Deneen stood out like a lightning-rod for his withering, full-frontal attack on the core principles and assumptions of liberal philosophy. And yet, when I recently went back and read the many reviews of Why Liberalism Failed, I came out feeling slightly dissatisfied. Critics of the book seemed all too able to shrug off its most interesting claims, and to argue in stead on grounds more comfortable to them.

Part of the problem, perhaps, is that Deneen’s book is not all that well written. His argument is more often a barrage of polemical statements than a carefully constructed analysis. Still, the objective is clear enough. He is taking aim at the liberal doctrine of individual freedom, which prioritises the individual’s right to do, be, and choose as he or she wishes. This “voluntarist” notion of freedom, Deneen argues, has shown itself to be not just destructive, but in certain respects illusory. On that basis he claims we would be better off embracing the constraints of small-scale community life.

Most provocatively, Deneen claims that liberal societies, while claiming merely to create conditions in which individuals can exercise their freedom, in fact mould people to see themselves and to act in a particular way. Liberalism, he argues, grew out of a particular idea of human nature, which posited, above all, that people want to pursue their own ends. It imagined our natural and ideal condition as that of freely choosing individual actors without connection to any particular time, place, or social context. For Deneen, this is a dangerous distortion — human flourishing also requires things at odds with personal freedom, such as self-restraint, committed relationships, and membership of a stable and continuous community. But once our political, economic, and cultural institutions are dedicated to individual choice as the highest good, we ourselves are encouraged to value that freedom above all else. As Deneen writes:

Liberalism began with the explicit assertion that it merely describes our political, social, and private decision making. Yet… what it presented as a description of human voluntarism in fact had to displace a very different form of human self-understanding and experience. In effect, liberal theory sought to educate people to think differently about themselves and their relationships.

Liberal society, in other words, shapes us to behave more like the human beings imagined by its political and economic theories.

It’s worth reflecting for a moment on what is being argued here. Deneen is saying our awareness of ourselves as freely choosing agents is, in fact, a reflection of how we have been shaped by the society we inhabit. It is every bit as much of a social construct as, say, a view of the self that is defined by religious duties, or by membership of a particular community. Moreover, valuing choice is itself a kind of constraint: it makes us less likely to adopt decisions and patterns of life which might limit our ability to choose in the future — even if we are less happy as a result. Liberalism makes us unfree, in a sense, to do anything apart from maximise our freedom.

Reviewers of Why Liberalism Failed did offer some strong arguments in defence of liberalism, and against Deneen’s communitarian alternative. These tended to focus on material wealth, and on the various forms of suffering and oppression inherent to non-liberal ways of life. But they barely engaged with his claims that our reverence for individual choice amounts to a socially determined and self-defeating idea of freedom. Rather, they tended to take the freely choosing individual as a given, which often meant they failed to distinguish between the kind of freedom Deneen is criticizing — that which seeks to actively maximise choice — and simply being free from coercion.

Thus, writing in the New York Times, Jennifer Szalai didn’t see what Deneen was griping about. She pointed out that

nobody is truly stopping Deneen from doing what he prescribes: finding a community of like-minded folk, taking to the land, growing his own food, pulling his children out of public school. His problem is that he apparently wants everyone to do these things

Meanwhile, at National Review, David French argued that liberalism in the United States actually incentivises individuals to“embrace the most basic virtues of self-governance — complete your education, get married, and wait until after marriage to have children.”And how so? With the promise of greater “opportunities and autonomy.” Similarly Deidre McCloskey, in a nonetheless fascinating rebuttal of Why Liberalism Failed, jumped between condemnation of social hierarchy and celebration of the “spontaneous order” of the liberal market, without acknowledging that she seemed to be describing two systems which shape individuals to behave in certain ways.

So why does this matter? Because it matters, ultimately, what kind of creatures we are — which desires we can think of as authentic and intrinsic to our flourishing, and which ones stem largely from our environment. The desire, for instance, to be able to choose new leaders, new clothes, new identities, new sexual partners — do these reflect the unfolding of some innate longing for self-expression, or could we in another setting do just as well without them?

There is no hard and fast distinction here, of course; the desire for a sports car is no less real and, at bottom, no less natural than the desire for friendship. Yet there is a moral distinction between the two, and a system which places a high value on the freedom to fulfil one’s desires has to remain conscious of such distinctions. The reason is, firstly, because many kinds of freedom are in conflict with other personal and social goods, and secondly, because there may come a time when a different system offers more by way of prosperity and security. In both cases, it is important to be able to say what amounts to an essential form of freedom, and what does not.

Another common theme among Deneen’s critics was to question his motivation. His Catholicism, in particular, was widely implicated, with many reviewers insinuating that his promotion of close-knit community was a cover for a reactionary social and moral order. Here’s Hugo Drochon writing in The Guardian:

it’s clear that what he wants… is a return to “updated Benedictine forms” of Catholic monastic communities. Like many who share his worldview, Deneen believes that if people returned to such communities they would get back on a moral path that includes the rejection of gay marriage and premarital sex, two of Deneen’s pet peeves.

Similarly, Deidre McCloskey:

We’re to go back to preliberal societies… with the church triumphant, closed corporate communities of lovely peasants and lords, hierarchies laid out in all directions, gays back in the closet, women in the kitchen, and so forth.

Such insinuations strike me as unjustified — these views do not actually appear in Why Liberalism Failed– but they are also understandable. For Deneen does not clarify the grounds of his argument. His critique of liberalism is made in the language of political philosophy, and seems to be consequentialist: liberalism has failed, because it has destroyed the conditions necessary for human flourishing. And yet whenever Deneen is more specific about just what has been lost, one hears the incipient voice of religious conservatism. In sexual matters, Deneen looks back to “courtship norms” and “mannered interaction between the sexes”; in education, to “comportment” and “the revealed word of God.”

I don’t doubt that Deneen’s religious beliefs colour his views, but nor do I think his entire case springs from some dastardly deontological commitment to Catholic moral teaching. Rather, I would argue that these outbursts point to a much more interesting tension in his argument.

My sense is that the underpinnings of Why Liberalism Failed come from virtue ethics — a philosophy whose stock has fallen somewhat since the Enlightenment, but which reigned supreme in antiquity and medieval Christendom. In Deneen’s case, what is important to grasp is Aristotle’s linking of three concepts: virtue, happiness, and the polis or community. The highest end of human life, says Aristotle, is happiness (or flourishing). And the only way to attain that happiness is through consistent action in accordance with virtue — in particular, through moderation and honest dealing. But note, virtues are not rules governing action; they are principles that one must possess at the level of character and, especially, of motivation. Also, it is not that virtue produces happiness as a consequence; the two are coterminous — to be virtuous is to be happy. Finally, the pursuit of virtue/happiness can only be successful in a community whose laws and customs are directed towards this same goal. For according to Aristotle:

to obtain a right training for goodness from an early age is a hard thing, unless one has been brought up under right laws. For a temperate and hardy way of life is not a pleasant thing to most people, especially when they are young.

The problem comes, though, when one has to provide a more detailed account of what the correct virtues are. For Aristotle, and for later Christian thinkers, this was provided by a natural teleology — a belief that human beings, as part of a divinely ordained natural order, have a purpose which is intrinsic to them. But this crutch is not really available in a modern philosophical discussion. And so more recent virtue ethicists, notably Alasdair MacIntyre, have shifted the emphasis away from a particular set of virtues with a particular purpose, and towards virtue and purpose as such. What matters for human flourishing, MacIntyre argued, is that individuals be part of a community or tradition which offers a deeply felt sense of what it is to lead a good life. Living under a shared purpose, as manifest in the social roles and duties of the polis, is ultimately more important than the purpose itself.

This seems to me roughly the vision of human flourishing sketched out in Why Liberalism Failed. Yet I’m not sure Deneen has fully reconciled himself to the relativism that is entailed by abandoning the moral framework of a natural teleology. This is a very real problem — for why should we not accept, say, the Manson family as an example of virtuous community? — but one which is difficult to resolve without overtly metaphysical concepts. And in fact, Deneen’s handling of human nature does strain in that direction, as when he looks forward to

the only real form of diversity, a variety of cultures that is multiple yet grounded in human truths that are transcultural and hence capable of being celebrated by many peoples.

So I would say that Deneen’s talk of “courtship norms” and “comportment” is similar to his suggestion that the good life might involve “cooking, planting, preserving, and composting.” Such specifics are needed to refine what is otherwise a dangerously vague picture of the good life.

Freelance writer. Main interest = history of ideas. Also art, books, politics. Follow me on twitter @wessiedutoit

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