Why Liberalism Failed (or How it Destroyed Itself) [Book Review]

The Dragon Devouring the Companions of Cadmus, 1588

… Liberalism’s great failing and ultimate weakness: its incapacity to foster self-governance.

Liberal individualism demands the dismantling of culture; and as culture fades, Leviathan waxes and responsible liberty recedes.

The age of dissatisfaction

It’s been a while since I have properly thought about the social and political issues of today. As you can’t do much about them, except to change yourself for the better and continue living your life, I decided I will not bother myself with collective problems which we as a society and culture are not able to solve.

However, there are some books which authors I respect, so whenever I see their books, a browse through the book is a must. Such authors are Yuval Noah Harrai, David Runciman and Pankaj Mishra. So during one week, while exploring the newest books in Foyles in London, I stumbled upon three books by these authors. Harrari’s 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Runciman’s How Democracy Ends and Mishra’s Age of Anger – A History of the Present. I will not go into details about these books. It is a topic for one of the upcoming blogs. However, there is one thing which I liked about these books, and one way in which they are similar. That is – they are not going with the mainstream Pinker-ish flow that says “everything is getting better”, “progress is ongoing and it is unstoppable”, “just look at these data and see how better we are now than back then.” I mean … OK … We get it … Yes, the technological progress has been made. And indeed we are living better and longer because when compared to 500 years ago.

But not many books talk in an unbiased and non-ideological way about the present issues. (OK, some may do, but I obviously haven’t read them). However, I felt that these books talk exactly about the things which you can see and feel everywhere: and that is a huge amount of dissatisfaction practically everywhere. Especially, in the political sense – a common topic of all of the three books mentioned above is the deep crisis of both liberalism and democracy.

So these books got me thinking. How the current state was born? What caused the current “age of anger”? What is the source of current dissatisfaction and collective disorientation?

I found an enlightening and unexpected answer while browsing the AAB bookstore in Rome. I stumbled upon a book with a sweet title: Why Liberalism Failed by Patrick Deneen. It immediately sounded interesting – maybe due to its assuring wording which assumes that liberalism has already failed – and now let’s see why it happened.

For those not familiar with Patrick Deneen, he holds the David A. Potenziani Memorial College Chair of Constitutional Studies at the University of Notre Dame. His previous books include The Odyssey of Political Theory and Democratic Faith.

Image via Letter & Liturgy.

What is liberalism and how it perverted itself

[First of all a short note about the liberalism: what Deneen has in mind is the European philosophy of liberalism, originating with thinkers such as John Locke, a worldview that puts the individual at its center. He is not talking about the political divide in the US between the conservatives and liberals.]

I will not cover all of the things Deneen offers while explaining the decline and destruction of liberalism. I’ll rather just go through the ones I found interesting and maybe counter-intuitive.

First of all, Deneen’s central claim is that “liberalism failed because it succeeded”.

First let’s see what liberalism is:

A political philosophy conceived some 500 years ago, and put into effect at the birth of the United States nearly 250 years later, was a wager that political society could be grounded on a different footing. It conceived humans as rights-bearing individuals who could fashion and pursue for themselves their own version of the good life. Opportunities for liberty were best afforded by a limited government devoted to “securing rights,” along with a free-market economic system that gave space for individual initiative and ambition. Political legitimacy was grounded on a shared belief in an originating “social contract” to which even newcomers could subscribe, ratified continuously by free and fair elections of responsive representatives. Limited but effective government, rule of law, an independent judiciary, responsive public officials, and free and fair elections were some of the hallmarks of this ascendant order and, by all evidence, wildly successful wager.

So this sets the stage. Liberalism wanted to put the individual at the centre of culture and society. And it succeeded. What is hard to see is that the idea of a free autonomous individual is so deeply embedded into everyday culture that it became invisible.

[Liberalism] makes itself invisible, much as a computer’s operating system goes largely unseen—until it crashes. Liberalism becomes daily more visible precisely because its deformations are becoming too obvious to ignore.

Deneen goes further:

Liberalism has failed—not because it fell short, but because it was true to itself. It has failed because it has succeeded. As liberalism has “become more fully itself,” as its inner logic has become more evident and its self-contradictions manifest, it has generated pathologies that are at once deformations of its claims yet realizations of liberal ideology. 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. Its success can be measured by its achievement of the opposite of what we have believed it would achieve.

The counterintuitive thing about the success of liberalism is that it can’t live without the state. Who else will protect the autonomous individual if not the state? So with the progress and depth individual rights, the state needed to become more powerful – in order to protect the growing amount of rights.

The “limited government” of liberalism today would provoke jealousy and amazement from tyrants of old, who could only dream of such extensive capacities for surveillance and control of movement, finances, and even deeds and thoughts. The liberties that liberalism was brought into being to protect—individual rights of conscience, religion, association, speech, and self-governance—are extensively compromised by the expansion of government activity into every area of life. Yet this expansion continues, largely as a response to people’s felt loss of power over the trajectory of their lives in so many distinct spheres—economic and otherwise—leading to demands for further intervention by the one entity even nominally under their control. Our government readily complies, moving like a ratchet wrench, always in one direction, enlarging and expanding in response to civic grievances, ironically leading in turn to citizens’ further experience of distance and powerlessness.

In a nutshell, the loop between liberalism and the state looks like this:

Statism enables individualism, individualism demands statism.

Liberalism’s mental revolutions: redefining liberty and going against nature

The evolution of liberalism is built upon three revolutions of thought:

  1. Redefining liberty as the liberation of humans from established authority, emancipation from arbitrary culture and tradition;
  2. The expansion of human power and dominion over nature;
  3. Advancing scientific discovery and economic prosperity.

The first two deserve special attention.

Redefining liberty

First of all, freedom as modern individualism saw it and promoted it, was a complete discontinuation with the classical and Christian understanding of freedom. In other words, the modern liberalism starting with John Locke changed the original meaning of freedom.

The Greeks especially regarded self-government as a continuity from the individual to the polity, with the realization of either only possible if the virtues of temperance, wisdom, moderation, and justice were to be mutually sustained and fostered. Self-governance in the city was possible only if the virtue of self-governance governed the souls of citizens; and self-governance of individuals could be realized only in a city that understood that citizenship itself was a kind of ongoing habituation in virtue, through both law and custom. Greek philosophy stressed paideia, or education in virtue, as a primary path to forestalling the establishment of tyranny and protecting liberty of citizens, yet these conclusions coexisted (if at times at least uneasily) with justifications of inequality exemplified not only in calls for rule by a wise ruler of a class of rulers, but in the pervasiveness of slavery.

Liberty was fundamentally reconceived, even if the word was retained. Liberty had long been believed to be the condition of self-rule that forestalled tyranny, within both the polity and the individual soul. Liberty was thus thought to involve discipline and training in self-limitation of desires, and corresponding social and political arrangements that sought to inculcate corresponding virtues that fostered the arts of self-government. Classical and Christian political thought was self-admittedly more “art” than “science”: it relied extensively on the fortunate appearance of inspiring founding figures and statesmen who could uphold political and social self-reinforcing virtuous cycles, and acknowledged the likelihood of decay and corruption as an inevitable feature of any human institution.

So in old times, liberty was not about doing what you wanted; rather, it contained the ideas of self-rule, virtuous behavior and a cultivating mind.

As Deneen stresses out, this kind of freedom couldn’t flourish by itself. Rather, it was supported by the informal social structures and community norms present in everyday life.

So the revolution of modern liberalism occurred exactly when those informal structures were dismantled. The individual is about to be left on its own; he will invent and reinvent himself in the he wishes.

So modern liberalism progressed by adopting two anthropological assumptions:

  1. Voluntaristic conception of choice,
  2. Human separation and opposition to nature.

Voluntaristic conception of choice

According to Thomas Hobbes,

human beings exist by nature in a state of radical independence and autonomy. Recognizing the fragility of a condition in which life in such a state is “nasty, brutish, and short,” they employ their rational self-interest to sacrifice most of their natural rights in order to secure the protection and security of a sovereign. Legitimacy is conferred by consent.

So in the modern liberal theory, being that all individuals exist for themselves, if they are left on their own – they will extinct each other. So in order to prevent that, people have autonomously decided and agreed to create a stance that will ultimately prevent them from doing that.

And what is the problem with this position?

The most important one is that the claim that individuals are free in the Hobbesian way is a normative claim, rather than empirical one. Meaning that it is that liberals would like that individuals are free in the modern sense, rather than they objectively are. For Aristotle, humans are social, or political creatures: they are “social animals”, rather than isolated atoms.

If it is modern liberalism that made human beings “free”, the alternative had to arise. Deneen here goes back to the communitarian philosopher Robert Nisbet who talks about a basic human need – a need for the community.

Nisbet argued that the active dissolution of traditional human communities and institutions had given rise to a condition in which a basic human need—“the quest for community”—was no longer being met. Statism arose as a violent reaction against this feeling of atomization. As naturally political and social creatures, people require a thick set of constitutive bonds in order to function as fully formed human beings. Shorn of the deepest ties to family (nuclear as well as extended), place, community, region, religion, and culture, and deeply shaped to believe that these forms of association are limits upon their autonomy, deracinated humans seek belonging and self-definition through the only legitimate form of organization remaining available to them: the state. Nisbet saw the rise of fascism and communism as the predictable consequence of the liberal attack upon smaller associations and communities. Those ideologies offered a new form of belonging by adopting the evocations and imagery of the associations they had displaced, above all by offering a new form of quasi-religious membership, a kind of church of the state. Our “community” was now to consist of countless fellow humans who shared an abstract allegiance to a political entity that would assuage all of our loneliness, alienation, and isolation. It would provide for our wants and needs; all it asked in return was complete devotion to the state and the elimination of any allegiance to any other intermediary entity. To provide for a mass public, more power to the central authority was asked and granted. Thus Nisbet concludes, “It is impossible to understand the massive concentrations of political power in the twentieth century, appearing so paradoxically, or it has seemed, right after a century and a half of individualism in economics and morals, unless we see the close relationship that prevailed all through the nineteenth century between individualism and State power and between both of these together and the general weakening of the area of association that lies intermediate to man and the State.”

Before Nisbet, even Tocqueville was aware of this. Writing about the outcomes of democracy being established in the US, he notices that

So . . . no man is obliged to put his powers at the disposal of another, and no one has any claim of right to substantial support from his fellow man, each is both independent and weak. These two conditions, which must be neither seen quite separately nor confused, give the citizen of a democracy extremely contradictory instincts. He is full of confidence and pride in his independence among his equals, but from time to time his weakness makes him feel the need for some outside help which he cannot expect from any of his fellows, for they are both impotent and cold. In this extremity he naturally turns his eyes toward that huge entity [the tutelary state] which alone stands out above the universal level of abasement. His needs, and even more his longings, continually put him in mind of that entity, and he ends by regarding it as the sole and necessary support of his individual weakness.

As Tocqueville understands, and Deneen concludes,

In effect, liberal theory sought to educate people to think differently about themselves and their relationships.

Today, we are paying the debts.

Liberalism against nature

After being extracted from his natural cultural communities, the man is left alone. Naturally, he catches up with other men on the market.

As spontaneous cultural institutions lost their ground under the siege of individual freedom, new practices emerged.

The only forms of shared cultural “liturgy” that remain are celebrations of the liberal state and the liberal market. National holidays have become occasions for shopping, and shopping holy days such as “Black Friday” have become national holidays. These forms of abstract membership mark a populace delinked from particular affiliations and devotions, which are transferred to—in a video played at the 2012 Democratic National Convention—“the only thing we all belong to,” the liberal state. This ambitious claim failed to note that the only thing we all belong to is the global market, an encompassing entity that contains all political organizations and their citizenry, now redefined as consumers.

Deneen once again goes back to Tocqueville. Tocqueville noticed that liberal democrats show tendency of indifference about the future.

Once [liberal democrats] have grown accustomed not to think about what will happen after their life, they easily fall back into a complete and brutish indifference about the future, an attitude all too well suited to certain propensities in human nature. As soon as they have lost the way of relying chiefly upon distant hopes, they are naturally led to want to satisfy their least desires at once. . . . [Thus] there is always a danger that men will give way to ephemeral and casual desires and that, wholly renouncing whatever cannot be acquired without protracted effort, they may never achieve anything great or calm or lasting.

As it was analyzed in The Atlantic article by Stephen Marche, platforms such as Facebook are the final “by-product of the appetite for independence.” The liberal man got what he wanted.

As Tocqueville writes:

Aristocracy links everybody, from peasant to king, in one long chain. Democracy breaks the chain and frees each link. . . . Thus, not only does democracy make men forget their ancestors, but also clouds their view of their descendants and isolates them from their contemporaries. Each man is forever thrown back upon himself alone and there is a danger that he may be shut up in the solitude of his own heart.

So the price human society has paid for dismantling culture, and establishing the individual at it’s focus, is nothing more than the individual being left to wander around.

Liberalism stresses our liberation from continuous time as a basic feature of our nature, and thus regards such formative institutions, structures, and practices as obstacles to the achievement of our untrammeled individuality. The disassembling of those cultural forms that tutor our presentism and instruct us that a distinctive feature of our humanity is our capacity to remember and to promise renders us at once free, and trapped by “brutish indifference” to any time outside our eternal present.

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