As nationalists try to salvage liberalism from the grip of globalists, a Notre Dame professor says both sides labor fruitlessly, as conservative nationalism offers no substantive alternative to progressive globalism.
In short, Patrick Deneen, associate professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, argues that liberalism — whether left-wing or right-wing — has failed. “Why Liberalism Failed” outlines Deneen’s attempt to move beyond the three ideologies of the twentieth century — communism, fascism, and liberalism — and ground a new political philosophy in experience and practice rather than theory.
Liberalism has numerous failures: runaway debt caused by incessant consumption, declining marriage and birth rates, and an ever-expanding warfare-welfare state that perpetuates income inequality, to name a few. Deneen condemns liberalism for society’s problems, using questionable scholarly work to justify his thesis. Society needs reform, but Deneen does not adequately convince the reader that liberalism is to blame. Nearly all of his criticisms could have landed convincingly on progressivism and neoconservatism, yet he bended the history of liberalism to fit his narrative.
When Deneen writes about liberalism he does not refer to the partisan label, but to the political philosophy originating in the seventeenth and eighteenth century that views equality and liberty as the fundamental values of political life.
He further defines the three “revolutions in thought and practice” that characterize liberalism.
First, liberalism relies on appeals to base desires in human nature for its continuation. Second, it eliminates the “Christian emphasis upon virtue and the cultivation of self-limitation.” Third, it tries to overcome “the dominion and limits of nature.”
With the destruction of virtue and moderation in liberal society, Deneen says early modern philosophers — John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, and Francis Bacon, in particular — proposed a new type of liberty, characterized by unlimited consumption, the destruction of marriage, and the dismantling of the church.
“Liberty, as defined by the originators of modern liberalism, was the condition in which humans were completely free to pursue whatever they desired,” Deneen writes.
In the “Two Treatises of Government,” Locke stated the opposite.
“Though this be a state of liberty, yet it is not a state of licence,” Locke wrote. “No one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions.”
Individuals living in liberal societies pursue their unlimited desires, Deneen says, because the social contract eliminates “customs and even laws that can be thought to limit individual freedom.”
Locke’s critique of custom has little do with cultural institutions. Rather, he discussed unjust laws that continue simply because they are old, not because they serve legitimate purposes.
“Private interest often [keep] up customs and privileges when the reasons of them are ceased,” Locke wrote.
While Deneen’s analysis of Locke falls short, he presents a thoroughly oversimplified reading of Hobbes.
He describes Hobbes’ project in the “Leviathan:” “Hobbes in turn argued that the rule of irrational custom and unexamined tradition — especially religious belief and practice — was a source of arbitrary governance and unproductive internecine conflict.”
Deneen doesn’t state why he opposes scrupulous analysis of custom and tradition. Nevertheless he’s wrong to assert that Hobbes wanted to “replace long-standing social norms and customs” with “individualistic rationality.” If anything, Hobbes tried to solidify norms and customs with help from the government.
At times Deneen appears to confuse modern liberalism with postmodern nihilism.
“[Liberalism] displaced first the idea of a natural order to which humanity is subject and later the notion of human nature itself,” Deneen writes.
It’s just not true. Liberalism’s project is to define the laws of nature and implement them, not dismantle them. Even the most progressive philosophers today posit a natural order and a human nature. Not until the rise of twentieth century progressivism did the idea of self-creation — an idea completely divorced from Locke and Hobbes’ strictly defined human nature — gain prominence.
Another claim he makes regards the classical liberal philosophers, presumably including Adam Smith, F.A. Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, etc.
“Like classical liberalism, progressivism is grounded in a deep hostility toward the past, particularly tradition and custom.”
Hayek dedicated a three-part treatise called “Law, Legislation, and Liberty” to defending the customs, habits, and norms of the past.
“Many of the institutions of society which are indispensable conditions for the successful pursuit of our conscious aims are in fact the result of customs, habits or practices which have been neither invented nor are observed with any such purpose in view,” Hayek wrote.
The greatest weakness of “Why Liberalism Failed” is also its greatest strength. Deneen makes sweeping assertions that do not line up with scholarly analysis of political philosophy, yet his hasty generalizations give his words power and create a clear purpose to rally around.
His book overflows with coherent examples about the destructive consequences of liberalism, but his poor scholarship undermines the narrative he constructs.
Specifically, Deneen comments on the disconnect between labor and value, the alienation of individuals from the community, the endless advance of technology, and the deterioration of liberal education. Unfortunately, he overshadowed a potentially fruitful discussion about liberalism’s failures with a philosophical analysis that reeked of agenda.