Why Lib­er­alism Failed



O, you who turn the ship of state and look to windward, con­sider lib­er­alism, which has failed.

In his new man­i­festo, “Why Lib­er­alism Failed,” the Notre Dame political philosopher argues that the dom­i­nating political project of the past 300 years has always been doomed to fail, that a political and social order designed to allow its denizens the license to a glut of self-indul­gence can only end in self-con­sumption. Lib­er­alism has failed because lib­er­alism has suc­ceeded.

Deneen argues that lib­er­alism has trans­ported the many nations and peoples in its thrall to an ide­o­logical frame of mind where order is con­structed from a placeless state of nature the­o­rized by sev­en­teenth century Eng­lishmen and adapted by con­niving American aris­to­crats. By seeking to subdue nature and create a global culture with “a pastless present in which the future is a foreign land,” Deneen argues that liberal society has pro­duced an era of placeless com­pla­cency.

Deneen passes his judgement on all bands of the political spectrum. Indi­vid­u­alism and Statism are code­pendent forces; as the indi­vidual dis­covers he has more desires — always, in Deneen’s mind, desires relating to com­merce — the state must advance to provide for his needs, his freedoms. In a beau­ti­fully poetic section, Deneen frames the 2008 world economy col­lapse as the result of both liberalism’s great success and failure. Because stock­brokers lived in a world dis­con­nected from tan­gible com­mu­nities, they were able to enrich them­selves and issue irre­spon­sible mort­gages at the expense of local com­mu­nities. At the same time, once the market turned on this culture hol­lowed out through self-indul­gence, it left everyone par­tic­i­pating in a state of “pow­er­lessness and bondage.”

Deneen also does well to crit­icize the over-encroaching role of tech­nology in the lives of liberal soci­eties. He describes tech­nology as pro­ducing an “oscil­lation between ecstasy and anxiety” in the lives of the people it affects. At the same time, he points out the flaws in modern edu­cation, how col­leges now value edu­cating their stu­dents in tech­nology and financial utility over all else.

It’s a dark view of the way we now live, but Deneen offers three solu­tions. First, we must acknowledge the achieve­ments of lib­er­alism and not seek to return to a pre-liberal society. We can only move forward with our ideas. Second, we must reject all ide­ology. Finally, we must create a new mode of society that builds upon the ruins of lib­er­alism.

But what even is lib­er­alism? It’s a question Deneen never really answers. Not aston­ishing: the book is only 197 pages, a third of which consist of an intro­duction and con­clusion. Perhaps Deneen should have pro­vided his reader a more spe­cific def­i­n­ition of lib­er­alism other than bits-of-Hobbes-and-Locke-I-don’t-like. The closest he gets to a true def­i­n­ition is in the intro­duction, when he launches an adjective-laden invective against modern society.

“A political phi­losophy that was launched to foster greater equity, defend a plu­ralist tapestry of dif­ferent cul­tures and beliefs, protect human dignity, and, of course, expand liberty, in practice gen­erates titanic inequality, enforces uni­formity and homo­geneity, fosters material and spir­itual degra­dation, and under­mines freedom,” he writes.

Those are a lot of buzz­words for a political the­orist. But like his more popular coun­terpart, American Con­ser­v­ative blogger Rod Dreher, Deneen is a man of buzz­words and hot takes. Both, however, are in essence Marxist his­to­rians who just lack Marxist con­clu­sions. History is a battle. When ideas fail at one time, they fail forever, irre­deemably. And when we lose history, we must retreat.

“Why Lib­er­alism Failed” acts as a philo­sophical addendum to Dreher’s “The Benedict Option.” Both see the cracks in modern liberal society and recoil with horror. Like Raphael Hythloday in Thomas More’s “Utopia,” both Dreher and Deneen suggest a retreat into a weird sort of garden, where their Chris­tianity jus­tifies their Epi­cure­anism. The only real dif­ference is their tone. Dreher writes like a loon. Deneen is an actual scholar.

But in the end, behind both Dreher and Deneen lurks the spectre of Alasdair Mac­Intyre. With his 1980 classic “After Virtue,” the Notre Dame phi­losophy pro­fessor argues that modernity has been won at the price of social and political coherency.

Dreher invokes the Scottish political theorist’s name often in “The Benedict Option.” Deneen leaves it out entirely, which gives “Why Lib­er­alism Failed” more force. While aping the now-famous (or is it infamous?) last sen­tence of MacIntyre’s “After Virtue,” Deneen does not claim to be MacIntyre’s “doubtless very dif­ferent St. Benedict” — as Dreher does — but instead pre­dicts that lib­er­alism will not be overcome except with soci­eties that value com­munity and place over ide­ology.

It’s a nice sen­timent, but pro­nouncing failure on an entire society won’t encourage future flour­ishing. We are not waiting for Deneen, but for another — doubtless very similar — Thomas More.