The rise and fall of the liberal empire: Book review of “Why Liberalism Failed”

In politics, each side usually blames all the problems on the other: it’s either the rainbow-loving communist godless liberals or the oppressive wealthy capitalist overlords and their witless redneck cronies. But here in Why Liberalism Failed, Deneen argues that the problems are systemic, built into liberalism itself and its underlying assumptions.

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By liberalism, he is referring to the old definition, not a specific political party or platform:

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.

This is the system we are working in, conceived by the Founding Fathers, and sworn by both Democrats and Republicans. It’s the air we breath. Now, before you get yourselves in a tizzy fit (how could anyone question America, democracy, freedom? He must be a communist!), he isn’t putting forth a new utopian dream in the place of democratic republicanism. But he does believe that our form of government was built on faulty assumptions, and many of our current political crises are direct results of these unstable foundations. In this sense, Deneen is very pessimistic of the fate of liberalism. The book is more a diagnosis than a prescription, seeking the root causes of modern-day problems and anxieties.

Deneen does an excellent job at relating the philosophical foundations and assumptions upon which liberalism is based. We usually take things for granted, without realizing that someone had to come up with these ideas first. People have heard the names Rousseau, Locke, and Hobbes, but few can express what ideas they contributed to the liberal ideal. Deneen describes what each added to the narrative, when they disagreed, and the practical implications of their ideas.

One particular assumption that Deneen entirely disagrees with is Hobbes’ “state of nature”: before men were able to organize themselves into governments, institutions, and associations, we existed as autonomous individuals with no culture, no duties to one another, and no relationships. In order to stop us killing one another in a constant state of war, we all agreed to give up some of our freedom to form the state, whose purpose was to preserve our rights and to allow us to pursue our own individual desires. Deneen argues that this is entirely false, ignoring that we truly are social creatures, not individual automatons.

One symptom of this underlying assumption of liberalism is “the myth of consent.” I really identified with this example he used from the Amish community:

I recall a chilling conversation when I was teaching at Princeton University about a book that had recently appeared about the Amish. We were discussing the practice of Rumspringa—literally, “running around”—a mandatory time of separation of young adults from the community during which they partake of the offerings of modern liberal society.4 The period of separation lasts usually about a year, at the end of which the young person must choose between the two worlds. An overwhelming number, approaching 90 percent, choose to return to be baptized and to accept norms and strictures of their community that forbid further enjoyment of the pleasure of liberal society. Some of my former colleagues took this as a sign that these young people were in fact not “choosing” as free individuals. One said, “We will have to consider ways of freeing them.” Perfect liberal consent requires perfectly liberated individuals, and the evidence that Amish youth were responding to the pull of family, community, and tradition marked them as unfree.

It reminded me of similar questions to me such as, “If you weren’t born Mormon, would you even be Mormon today?” As if, taken as I am, I can’t make fully individual choices because of my previous commitments to my religious tradition. Liberalism views any commitments and duties imposed by families, institutions, faith, and others as forms of oppression, and seeks to eliminate them.

The book is divided into the following chapters, to which I will include a quote that gives you an idea of the basic premise:

  1. Unsustainable Liberalism: Liberalism’s founders tended to take for granted the persistence of social norms, even as they sought to liberate individuals from the constitutive associations and education in self-limitation that sustained these norms.
  2. Uniting Individualism and Statism: Individualism and statism advance together, always mutually supportive, and always at the expense of lived and vital relations that stand in contrast to both the starkness of the autonomous individual and the abstraction of our membership in the state. In distinct but related ways, the right and left cooperate in the expansion of both statism and individualism, although from different perspectives, using different means, and claiming different agendas. This deeper cooperation helps to explain how it has happened that contemporary liberal states—whether in Europe or America—have become simultaneously both more statist, with ever more powers and activity vested in central authority, and more individualistic, with people becoming less associated and involved with such mediating institutions as voluntary associations, political parties, churches, communities, and even family. For both “liberals” and “conservatives,” the state becomes the main driver of individualism, while individualism becomes the main source of expanding power and authority of the state.
  3. Liberalism as Anti-culture: Anticulture is the consequence of a regime of standardizing law replacing widely observed informal norms that come to be discarded as forms of oppression; and it is the simultaneous consequence of a universal and homogenous market, resulting in a monoculture that, like its agricultural analogue, colonizes and destroys actual cultures rooted in experience, history, and place.
  4. Technology and the Loss of Liberty: There is much concern about the ways that modern technology undermines community and tends to make us more individualistic, but in light of the deeper set of conditions that led to the creation of our technological society, we can see that “technology” simply supports the fundamental commitments of early-modern political philosophy and its founding piece of technology, our modern republican government and the constitutional order. It is less a matter of our technology “making us” than of our deeper political commitments shaping our technology.
  5. Liberalism against the Liberal Arts: The collapse of the liberal arts in this nation follows closely upon the redefinition of liberty, away from its ancient and Christian understanding of self-rule and disciplined self-command, in favor of an understanding of liberty as the absence of restraints upon one’s desires. If the purpose of the liberal arts was to seek an instruction in self-rule, then its teaching no longer aligns with the contemporary ends of education. Long-standing requirements to learn ancient languages in order to read the classical texts, or to require an intimate familiarity with the Bible and scriptural interpretation, were displaced by a marketplace of studies driven by individual taste and preference. Above all, the liberal arts are increasingly replaced by “STEM,” which combines a remnant of the ancient liberal arts—science and mathematics—with their applied forms, technology and engineering, alongside increasing demands for preparation for careers in business and finance.
  6. The New Aristocracy: Liberalism was justified, and gained popular support, as the opponent of and alternative to the old aristocracy. It attacked inherited privilege, overturned prescribed economic roles, and abolished fixed social positions, arguing instead for openness based upon choice, talent, opportunity, and industry. The irony is the creation of a new aristocracy that has enjoyed inherited privileges, prescribed economic roles, and fixed social positions.
  7. The Degradation of Citizenship: Democracy is not simply the expression of self-interest but the transformation of that what might have been narrow interest into a capacious concern for the common good. This can be effected only through the practice of citizens simultaneously ruling and being ruled by themselves: democracy “is not the laws’ creation, but the people learn to achieve it by making the laws.”

While the book mostly focuses on the diagnosis of liberalism’s symptoms, Deneen does offer a few solutions in his conclusion. He doesn’t suggest replacing it with a different ideology: in fact, he suggests moving beyond ideology (which seems difficult in our current political climate!). His solution is reviving local cultures, associations, and self-government. We can’t expect the state to solve all our problems. He suggests such things as developing home economics (e.g. growing a garden, limiting unneeded spending, etc), going back to your roots and heritage in family histories and stories, and forming small communities of shared values. Oddly, it sounds like Mormons have a good start on all these things. My wife and I were just discussing the beauty of the vibrant culture in the movie Coco, and thinking about how we could preserve and maintain our own family culture. There are things we need to change, and we both felt motivated to try a few new things: searching our family histories, interviewing our grandparents and extended families, building traditions, and making the holidays more meaningful.

I am really glad I found this book! I only give books five stars that I feel have significantly changed the way I think, and I would give this one five stars, for sure!

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