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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.