The very title of Patrick Deneen’s new book, Why Liberalism Failed requires correction. For liberalism did not fail, it is not failing, and, barring some great inconceivable upheaval, will not fail anytime in the near future. While it’s comforting that scholars are turning their sights to the major problems of liberalism—Deneen’s book sparked informative responses from Adrian Vermeule and David D. Corey over at American Affairs—the book ultimately fails as an indictment of the liberal regime, let alone a blueprint for fighting back against it.
The first line of the book gave me much hope, with Deneen describing liberalism as 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.” Deneen, a professor at the most prominent Catholic university in the United States, seems to be attacking liberalism at its heart and root, which is the Protestant revolt begun by Martin Luther in 1517.
But unfortunately, Deneen does not pursue this track. And this is one of the fundamental flaws of his book. For liberalism is not, first and foremost, an argument for liberty—this is merely the conception liberalism has of itself. Liberalism is, and always has been, an assault against God and, more particularly, an argument against the use of temporal power by spiritual authority. In discussing liberalism, we are dealing with is not primarily a political battle but a theological one.
The primary reason Why Liberalism Fails itself ultimately fails is because Deneen never satisfactorily adopts a definition of liberalism. For this reason, no matter how trenchant some of his arguments are, he is always dependent on the definition of liberalism which liberals have assigned to themselves. Sometimes this is enough. But since Deneen’s goal seems to be attacking liberalism wholesale without an adequate definition of the enemy, he is often left with arguments that do not follow to logical conclusions, and prescriptions that are inadequate to the task at hand.
Let’s return to that first sentence, which is incredibly suspect: Liberalism was not “conceived;” it did not arise as a defined or definable political project—insofar that it has ever been a political project— until years after paradigmatic liberals like John Locke and Voltaire were in the ground. And the Declaration of Independence was not the first attempt to put into effect liberalism on a grand scale. Certainly, the Dutch invasion of England in 1688 was a liberal revolution; the American insurrectionists did not need to look far beyond it to justify their own treason. I might also add: Why were Oliver Cromwell and his minions, not “liberals?” Were the murderous, radical Puritans not as zealous as the Jacobins? Were they not just as deluded that man could govern himself without the intermediary prince or priest? Were they not similarly inebriated by notions of popular government? This may be me being a papist crank, but without defining what a liberal is, who is to say I’m wrong?
There are many fine things about Deneen’s book, but all its flaws go back to the central flaw of failing to define the enemy. He admirably points out that the current monstrosities wrought by the liberal regime are not the effect of any perversion of liberal thought, but a logical necessity of that thought. He goes so far to condemn liberalism as the “first regime to put into effect a version of the ‘Noble Lie’ proposed by Plato in the Republic” which will ultimately require “imposing the liberal order by fiat—especially in the form of the administrative state run by a small minority who increasingly disdain democracy.” These are radical (and welcome) statements. But again, Deneen is plagued by his lack of definition. Who cares about democracy, per se? The very notion that popular sovereignty is the final arbiter of right and wrong strikes me as a liberal concept. *What exactly is this “liberalism” he is attacking, and to what state must we return if we finally succeed in slaying this liberal beast? *
Deneen goes on to mention the other aspects of liberalism he believes make it unsustainable: our modern politics, economics, education, science, and technology. But liberalism’s transformation through these means has been going on for centuries. Why is it that just now the liberal chickens have come home to roost? Our politics has long been dominated by the bureaucratic state and urban ochlocracy; capitalism long ago destroyed meaningful personal property; science has been distorting man’s conception of himself since Copernicus. Deneen’s complaints are nothing new, and oftentimes many centuries too late.
And why should we think liberalism is collapsing right now? If anything, the liberalism is stronger than ever. We live in an age where nearly everyone has an entertainment machine in his pocket and easy access to various narcotic somas. Imagine if the poor peasant, driven from the commons by the enclosure movement, could have benefited from such sedation! The same for the New England girls forced into the factories or the American ethnics forced out of their neighborhoods by the ethnic cleansing we now call the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Why is it that modern transgenderism portends doom, yet not contraception, which turned women into little more than sexual livestock? Why Facebook and not the assembly line? Why Obamacare and not the New Deal?
There is an astounding paucity of anti-liberal thinkers in the book. Edmund Burke is referred to a couple times. But Burke himself was the defender of the usurpation of 1688 and the American revolt of 1776; a figure who suffered from the same cognitive dissonance as Deneen: his ostensible opposition to liberalism was framed by the terms of liberalism had set for itself, and for this reason, he had already substantively lost the debate.
Speaking of ostensive anti-liberals, Deneen’s reliance on Tocqueville after awhile becomes sickening. He proposes at the end of the book that Americans return to the “do-it-yourself” spirit that Tocqueville saw in the 1820s, that we return to that “schoolhouse of democracy,” i.e. local government, to reawaken our dormant virtues. Citing Tocqueville is a fetish among modern conservatives, who seem not to realize that America is a slave state, and any notion of ruling ourselves once again is obscene. What role are transsexuals going to play in this schoolhouse of democracy?—how about the porn addicts? Americans are ruled by usurious banks, insurance companies, the administrative state, and purveyors of pornography. At this point, a decade-long embargo on quoting Tocqueville would do much toward purifying the conservative headspace. For all Tocqueville's wonderful insights, useful and accurate in the context of early 19th century America, his work is now almost meaningless as a guide for future action.
Deneen points out that liberalism is the last of the three great 20th Century ideologies, now that Communism and Fascism have fallen into the dustbin of history. He seems not to understand, however, what actually made Nazism (every conservative who says “fascism” actually means Nazism) and Stalinism (every conservative who says “communism” actually means Stalinism) so appealing in the first place. Nazism and Stalinism were ways of addressing the many problems caused by the existence of “liberal men”(the liberal way to deal with them is, of course, to let the scumbags take control of the government, and to leave the pauper to rot in the street.) Ultimately, when brought to their apogees, mass murder is an integral part of all three ideologies. This is because the modern state can only do so much with modern men, a large component of whom are parasitic and useless to the state and to themselves. Go ahead, resurrect those “schoolhouses of democracy.” Who wants to share political power with porn addicted sexual deviants, a class which now, thanks to liberalism, constitutes a substantial part of the contemporary American polity? Again, the underlying problem of liberalism is not political or ideological, but theological and spiritual.
Deneen’s final prescriptions on solving the problem are flaccid and lame.* He refers to Rod Dreher’s “Benedict option” as a way to connect average men with the local economy—this while ignoring that it was modern capitalism itself which made this kind of economic localism unpalatable and unfeasible* (besides some minor complaints against John Stuart Mill, the book lacks any real substantive complaints against the market). Almost every orthodox Catholic family I know has already been practicing some version of the “Benedict option" anyways. Yet this still won't prevent the state from crushing them like bugs, a likely circumstance which is the real issue proponents of the Benedict Option refuse to honestly address.
Still, it gets worse. Here are some of Deneen’s last prescriptions: Our post-liberal state will provide assurances that “injustices arising from racial, sexual, and ethnic prejudice be preemptively forestalled and that local autocracies or theocracies be legally prevented.” (pp. 196-197). Deneen suggests that after these changes are made, we might finally arrive at a system “worthy of the name ‘liberal.’”
What? Did not Deneen say that liberalism is fatally corrupt? Has it not destroyed itself by its own faulty premises? And yet now the term "liberal" itself is our final arbiter! One might accuse Deneen of intellectual dishonesty at this point, but that would be uncharitable. I think the problem is, ultimately, as I mentioned at the beginning, a lack of a sound definition of what he is attacking.
No matter how well they inveigh against liberalism, no matter how sound and legitimate their critiques, conservatives like Deneen always finally expose themselves as enamored to the very whore they are trying to lash. They simply cannot conceive of a critique of liberalism which does not also acquiesce to the legitimacy of liberal terms and concepts, thus their critiques can never be anything more than a tedious example of liberalism critiquing itself. The reason for this is (again, most charitably) because the modern conservatives like Deneen simply do not know what liberalism is. By the end of his useful yet ultimately disappointing book, it is clear that Deneen has no solutions to the problem of liberalism because he does not really know what the problem actually is, to begin with. Worst of all, he also seems blissfully unaware that his own work is one of its primary symptoms.