Notre Dame professor Patrick Deneen has written a book vitally important for understanding the present crisis in Western politics. If this work had appeared two or three years ago, it still would have been of great significance, but coming as it does in the wake of Brexit, Trump, and other shocks to the liberal consensus, its relevance is further enhanced.
But a warning is in order: American conservatives may be cheered by the appearance of a book entitled “Why Liberalism Failed.” But, in the sense in which Deneen is using “liberalism,” most American conservatives are actually liberals. Deneen’s use is in fact the one common among political theorists, many of whom argue that America does not have a conservative and a liberal party. Rather, it has a right-liberal party, focused on free markets and free trade, and a left-liberal party, focused on social issues. The United States, according to this view, has never had a “church and throne” conservative party such as those seen in many European countries.
With their acknowledgement that Conservatives are actually Liberals, The American Conservative writer sounds as though he’s been reading James Kalb’s indispensable Tyranny of Liberalism. Or this blog.
Deneen notes that liberalism is one of the three great ideologies to dominate modern politics, along with communism and fascism. The latter two have been vanquished as serious competitors to liberalism, which had an advantage over them: “In contrast to its crueler competitor ideologies, liberalism is more insidious: as an ideology, it pretends to neutrality, claiming no preference and denying any intention of shaping the souls under its rule. It ingratiates by invitation to the easy liberties, diversions, and attractions of freedom, pleasure, and wealth.”
On paper, Liberalism claims there are no wrong answers. But it falls prey to the same error as all other utopian ideologies. In the real world, letting everyone pursue their personal preferences leads to irreconcilable conflicts of interest. Liberals then must call on the state to resolve the dispute.
Sure, the whole process is couched in the Liberal language of “government stepping in to preserve the victim’s civil rights.” But simply using the word “victim”–or if you like, “oppressor”, “marginalized group”, “bigot”, etc. gives the lie to Liberalism by showing that, in practice, some answers are more equal than others.
The two liberal parties in America compete by pointing to two seemingly opposed but factually reinforcing trends. The right-liberal Republicans warn against the dominance of society by the state, while the left-liberal Democrats point to the tyranny of the market as the greatest threat to human freedom. Thus each party inspires its partisan members by fear of the threat the other party represents. But despite appearances, both parties, in fact, jointly work to expand both the state and the market.
For those of you still scratching your heads over the omnibus bill debacle, Deneen has explained why Republicans never seem to accomplish anything no matter how large their majorities. They’re not betraying Classical Liberal principles. Classical Liberalism is inherently unprincipled, and both factions of the monolithic ruling party are following its cynical, opportunistic program to a T.
As Deneen writes, “The insistent demand that we choose between protection of individual liberty and expansion of state activity masks the true relation between the state and market: that they grow constantly and necessarily together… modern liberalism proceeds by making us both more individualist and more statist.”
Here we come to the definitive failing of right-Liberals and the Classical Liberal offshoot of Libertarianism. The theory that individualism and statism are diametrically opposed is proven false in practice, and the claim that the former can serve as an antidote to the latter is demonstrably absurd. A loose mass of rootless, atomized individuals is no match for a centralized authority. Our rulers are well aware of this reality and have successfully used it to quell opposition.
Don’t believe me? Look at how the dissident movement opposed to globalism, which scored impressive victories with Brexit and Trump’s election, has splintered into a babel of squabbling factions.
Even if one accepts Deneen’s conclusion about this relationship between state and market under liberalism, why should we think that liberalism is failing? Isn’t our great material wealth, our increased longevity, and relative safety evidence that liberalism is succeeding, whatever its downsides might be? Deneen, well aware of this argument, has an effective counter—namely, that liberalism has been “making progress” similar to a meth addict, who has been burning up his body’s reserves, but responds to warnings about his behavior by pointing out how many times he has cleaned his room and dead-headed the roses this week. Those activities are fine things, but they are being carried out at an unsustainable pace. As Deneen puts it: “Liberalism has drawn down on a preliberal inheritance and resources that at once sustained liberalism but which it cannot replenish.”
Yet even Professor Deneen is not immune to Liberalism’s creeping tentacles. After rightly refuting the foundational Liberal rhetoric of “progress”, he performs the following dramatic heel turn:
Someone having reached this far into my review might suspect Deneen of being a reactionary fantasist seeking a return to some earlier “golden age.” But he is not, nor does he deny liberalism’s accomplishments. In pondering how we might proceed, if we accept his diagnosis of liberalism as a failed ideology, he writes, “First, the achievements of liberalism must be acknowledged, and the desire to ‘return’ to a preliberal age must be eschewed. We must build upon those achievements while abandoning the foundational reasons for its failures. There can be no going back, only forward.”
This glaring example of Conservative epistemic closure brought to you by cognitive dissonance. There is no argument in the above paragraph, just empty rhetoric and weasel words like “reactionary”, “fantasist”, and ‘”golden age”‘–complete with scare quotes.
Note that neither Deneen nor his reviewer bother to name any achievements of Liberalism. That’s because other than the material wealth, increased longevity, and relative safety–highly debatable if you live, say, in London–that they already dispensed with, Liberalism’s main achievements have been to expand state power to a previously unimaginable extent. This growth also coincided with the bloodiest century in world history, though that may not be a coincidence.
Deneen and The American Conservative have it backwards. There is no going forward, because as they themselves pointed out, “forward” to what? Matter decays, entropy wins, and the only progress man is capable of making in the end is spiritual progress–a concept anathema to Liberalism. Western civilization is falling into a dark age, and if you’re falling in the dark, you want to fall backward because at least you know what’s behind you.
You can’t build on sand. Returning to a preliberal age is precisely what must be done if the West is to endure.
We all have to go back. All the way back.
NB: One cool thing about reactionary fantasists is we write pretty awesome fantasy.
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