REVIEW: Why Liberalism Failed – Patrick J. Deneen (Yale University Press, 2018)

It doesn’t take a genius to note the decrepit state of modernity (take, for example, this blog).  About as cliché, although slightly more respected, is the growing state of contemporary academia to take aim at liberalism—and not merely the liberalism of the clueless BernieBro bumper stickers and effete Starbucks-intoxicated opinions on veganism, but the legitimate roots of liberalism as characterized by Locke, Mill, Rousseau, and the rest.  The so-called classical liberalism of the nineteenth century, the brand contemporary ‘conservatives’ claim to embrace so well, is undergoing a well-deserved attack by what remains of the academic right.

Enter Patrick Deneen.  He’s not exactly a newcomer to this sort of political discourse; author of several books and one of those chosen few belonging to that intergenerational barely-Gen X-just-missed-boomer groups of fifty-year-olds, he’s been around the block a few times.  Deneen minces no words, as evidenced even by the title of this steamship of the Yale University Press Politics and Culture series.  Why Liberalism Failed is a lesson in remaining wary of globalism, technocracy, impulsiveness, and the sort of cultural flattening embodied by forty-foot tall LCD billboards hanging off of boring glass-block commercial buildings.

Deneen’s book is in good company, alongside the likes of Safranek’s The Myth of Liberalism, and to a lesser extent, Ferrera’s Liberty: The God that Failed.  For avid readers of this mytho-apocalpytic genre of non-fiction that deals with the crumbling of contemporary political theory, much of what Deneen covers will not be new.  He covers it all, however, from the seemingly contradictory union of individualism and collectivism present in the liberal ethos, to the mandatory flattening of space and time in the form of materialism and impulsiveness that defines liberal morality.  While he may not supply the depth of historical background present in Ferrera’s tome, nor the exquisitely argued detail of Safranek’s, Deneen’s book offers instead a succinct and pointed critique accessible to the average reader.

So what’s the punchline?  Why did liberalism fail?  According to Deneen, “because it succeeded.”  Liberalism is more than a political doctrine; it relies on the modern concept of the individual as the social atom, the present moment as the temporal atom, and positively-defined liberty as the moral atom.  In other words, liberalism asserts an anthropology, metaphysic, and moral structure that can only be followed by remaining ignorant of the fact that it asserts any of these things.  It respects the freedom of speech by erasing the freedom to be heard, it respects the freedom of religion by erasing the freedom enshrined by public virtue, and it respects the freedom of the public square by enshrining the freedom of the dictatorial democratic ethos.

Modesty, self-respect, and even economic wellbeing are ultimately destroyed, Deneen argues, by the suspicious-sounding liberal credo do as thou wilt—a credo that defines the utilitarian method of the present era as well as the Satanic-inspired cult of Crowleyan occultism from the first half of the last century.  That’s no mere coincidence, either; under the auspices of religious and moral freedom, order and optimization of the dumb masses by laws and courts supplant the pursuit of virtue and worship mandated by Christian doctrine.  The liberal state becomes the arbiter of morality, the definer of anthropology, and the creator of a metaphysical reality.  Christianity’s fundamental strengthening of individual character, its message of personal salvation, its embrace of a nature oriented toward God, and its clear definitions of essences and purpose all act, it turns out, as a glue between persons and families.  Any deviation from that path leads inevitably to the same place, be it occult-styled voodoo or corporate logo-plastered economics.  Deneen, however, stops short of really exploring that territory.  His book is, after all, a work of political theory rather than theology—a distinction that’s relevant, amusingly enough, only in a modern liberal culture.

Deneen makes clear that this book is not a project interested in salvaging liberalism from itself in order to preserve whatever remains of our present status quo.  Liberalism is not going to fail, he says; it has already failed.  It’s just taking its sweet time lumbering into its grave.  Instead, Deneen argues in the final pages of his book, what should be of most concern is to decide what comes after the mass-disillusionment with liberalism becomes undeniable and impossible to ignore.  He recommends three things: a) avoiding erasure of liberalism’s achievements by glorifying the past, b) the eradication of ideology as a form of life—particularly Marxism, and c) the eventual and organic establishment of a new political theory.

It’s a little hard to take seriously these three concluding points, given that the formulation of any new political theory that remains uninformed by the fundamental truths of Christian doctrine would by definition be a form of ideology.  Similarly, the development of ideology is only possible within a framework of liberalism; ideology begins with the myth of purely-secular rationality, and the only counter to such a false basis of reason is the framework of the classical-medieval system oriented around Christian understanding.  It’s understandable to cut short some of the means by which a new political theory could even be possible—and indeed, Alasdair MacIntyre seems to have spent his entire career on the prospect, gradually leading him into the faith as well—but to mention the problem and neglect the centuries of work toward that solution that has existed since the middle ages is strikingly reductionist.

In any case, Deneen argues his book extremely well and with a succinctness that can only be admired.  It’s a quick read that serves as a great rundown on the current order for casual audiences.  I highly recommend it.

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