One of the central themes of Tocqueville’s thought is that a political movement, or (at a later stage) a political regime, may be undone by its very success.1 University of Notre Dame professor Patrick J. Deneen shows himself to be a worthy successor of Tocqueville by updating his teacher’s theme, applying it neither to democratic revolution nor to steady-state democracy, but to liberalism. In a cutting style that sustains its momentum throughout, Deneen addresses the widespread sense that liberalism is visibly teetering, and demonstrates with great power that the very successes of liberalism have undermined its own foundations.
By itself this would be enough to make the book a triumph. It is therefore churlish to wish for more, yet, I will play the churl. At the stage of diagnosis, Deneen is masterful; at the stage of prescription, he relapses into liberalism (or more accurately, as I will explain, into liberalism’s false image of itself). At the stage of diagnosis, Deneen proves beyond a reasonable doubt that liberalism claims to eschew comprehensive substantive theories of the good, yet inevitably embeds and enforces just such a comprehensive substantive theory, based on a particular and erroneous anthropology. At the stage of prescription, puzzlingly, Deneen tries to eschew any competing comprehensive theory and plumps for a vague communitarian localism, which can finally exist only at the sufferance of the aggressive liberal state. In that sense the diagnosis itself undercuts the prescription, suggesting that the retreat into local communities is at best a precarious maneuver.
Given this complaint, I will undertake a kind of Deneen fan fiction, offering an alternative ending to the book—one that is, I believe, more consistent with Deneen’s own argument. In the alternate ending, rather than retreating to a nostalgic localism, nonliberal actors strategically locate themselves within liberal institutions and work to undo the liberalism of the state from within. These actors possess a substantive comprehensive theory of the good, and seize opportunities to bring about its fulfillment through and by means of the very institutional machinery that the liberal state has providentially created. Then and only then will the liberal state, reintegrated from within, finally and truly become a victim of its own success.
How The Social Order Crumbles
It has been observed many times that liberalism is mostly a secularized version of Christianity; there’s a lot of truth to that. As I read Why Liberalism Failed, I take Deneen as saying that liberalism had to fail because at its core it stands for liberating the individual from an unchosen obligation. Ultimately, it forms consumers, not citizens.
.. liberalism cannot generate within itself the virtues it needs to survive.
.. Free markets are a core part of the liberal democratic model, but given the globalized nature of the economy, and rapid technological changes, we have to face the possibility that liberalism as we have understood it is inadequate to provide for the good of workers left behind by these changes.
.. I keep going back to Adams’s line about our Constitution is only good for a “moral and religious people,” because self-government by the people can only work for people who possess the virtues to govern their own passions.
.. to perceive and to achieve the virtues embedded within liberalism, one has to be oriented towards a sense that there really are moral and religious truths beyond ourselves that bind our conduct.
.. Liberalism has degenerated into Justice Anthony Kennedy’s famous line:
At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.
How Democracies Perish
Everybody agrees society is in a bad way, but what exactly is the main cause of the badness?
Some people emphasize economic issues’
People like me emphasize cultural issues. If you have 60 years of radical individualism and ruthless meritocracy, you’re going to end up with a society that is atomized, distrustful and divided.
Patrick Deneen .. new book, “Why Liberalism Failed,”
.. democracy has betrayed its promises.
- It was supposed to foster equality, but it has led to great inequality and a new aristocracy.
- It was supposed to give average people control over government, but average people feel alienated from government.
- It was supposed to foster liberty, but it creates a degraded popular culture in which consumers become slave to their appetites.
.. “Because we view humanity — and thus its institutions — as corrupt and selfish, the only person we can rely upon is our self. The only way we can avoid failure, being let down, and ultimately succumbing to the chaotic world around us, therefore, is to have the means (financial security) to rely only upon ourselves.”
.. Greek and medieval philosophies valued liberty, but they understood that before a person could help govern society, he had to be able to govern himself.
People had to be habituated in virtue by institutions they didn’t choose — family, religion, community, social norms.
.. Machiavelli and Locke, the men who founded our system made two fateful errors.
- First, they came to reject the classical and religious idea that people are political and relational creatures. Instead, they placed the autonomous, choosing individual at the center of their view of human nature.
- Furthermore, they decided you couldn’t base a system of government on something as unreliable as virtue. But you could base it on something low and steady like selfishness. You could pit interest against interest and create a stable machine. You didn’t have to worry about creating noble citizens; you could get by with rationally self-interested ones.
.. Liberalism claims to be neutral but it’s really anti-culture. It detaches people from nature, community, tradition and place. It detaches people from time. “Gratitude to the past and obligations to the future are replaced by a nearly universal pursuit of immediate gratification.”
.. Once family and local community erode and social norms dissolve, individuals are left naked and unprotected. They seek solace in the state. They toggle between impersonal systems: globalized capitalism and the distant state. As the social order decays, people grasp for the security of authoritarianism.
“A signal feature of modern totalitarianism was that it arose and came to power through the discontents of people’s isolation and loneliness,” he observes. He urges people to dedicate themselves instead to local community — a sort of Wendell Berry agrarianism.
.. Every time Deneen writes about virtue it tastes like castor oil — self-denial and joylessness.
.. Yes, liberalism sometimes sits in tension with faith, tradition, family and community, which Deneen rightly cherishes. But liberalism is not their murderer.