[This page contains the first of five sections, including a brief introduction. I will link the remaining sections 2-5 from here as they are completed.]
The Five Arguments:
1. Liberalism is grounded on a false theory of human nature (with Introduction)
2. Liberal individualism and statism reinforce each other in a vicious cycle
3. Liberalism is grounded on an impoverished understanding of liberty
4. Liberalism creates a globalized monoculture
5. Liberalism justifies and promotes an unsustainable relation to nature (plus Conclusion)
Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, just out in February, continues to garner ever-wider acclaim as the year's must-read book of political analysis. I would go further and predict it will eventually be recognized as one of the key works of political theory of the early decades of this century. In what follows, I attempt to sum up Deneen’s hard-hitting, interlocking theses on the causes of our deepening malaise, but want to begin by quoting the opening paragraphs of his last chapter:
Liberalism has failed because liberalism has succeeded. As it becomes fully itself, it generates endemic pathologies more rapidly and pervasively than it is able to produce Band-aids and veils to cover them. . . .
The narrowing of our political horizons has rendered us incapable of considering that what we face today is not a set of discrete problems solvable by liberal tools but a systemic challenge arising from pervasive invisible ideology. The problem is not in just one program or application but in the operating system itself. It is almost impossible for us to conceive that we are in the midst of a legitimation crisis in which our deepest systemic assumptions are subject to dissolution. . . . Liberalism’s apologists regard pervasive discontent, political dysfunction, economic inequality, civic disconnection, and populist reject as accidental problems disconnected from systemic causes, because their self-deception is generated by enormous reservoirs of self-interest in the maintenance of the present system. This divide will only widen, the crises will become more pronounced, the political duct tape and economic spray paint will increasingly fail to keep the house standing. The end of liberalism is in sight.
Liberalism’s defenders today regard their discontented countrymen as backward and recidivist, often attributing to them the most vicious motivations: racism, narrow sectarianism, or bigotry, depending on the issue at hand. To the extent that liberalism regards itself as a self-healing, perpetual political machine, it remains almost unthinkable for its apologists to grasp that its failure may lead to its replacement by a cruel and vicious successor. No serious effort to conceive a humane postliberal alternative is likely to emerge from the rear-guard defenders of a declining regime.
If these few paragraphs give some sense of the scope and paradoxical thrust of Deneen’s argument, they may also reveal why some see his prognosis as overly grim. In fact Deneen does claim our political order is beginning to unwind, and predicts its end, as his provocative title (in prophetic past tense) suggests. But how have we gotten to this point? If his book is important, if his arguments cannot just be brushed off, it’s because he succeeds in laying out a series of interlocking systemic features of liberal politics that explain why breakdown is inevitable.
[NB: A brief clarification of terms may be in order for some. What is meant here by liberalism? Simply put, Deneen is using the term liberalism in its more academic sense to mean a post-Enlightenment system of government characterized by (more or less) free markets, individual liberty, and elections. He has in mind particularly our American republic as founded in our Constitution. He is not using the term liberal in the way it is often used in common parlance today--to mean Democrat, say, rather than Republican. In Deneen’s usage, all our prominent politicians are part of “the liberal tradition”--George W. Bush as much as Barack Obama. The term liberal, then, is meant to distinguish our politics from, say, the monarchism of previous centuries or the Leninism or fascism of more recent times.]
Deneen’s theses on the liberal project buttress his argument that eventual failure is virtually built in. In my reading, the following five theses are the most important.
1. Liberalism is grounded on a false theory of human nature
This is one of the most provocative of Deneen’s points, and will take a bit of unpacking. We begin with 17th c. English philosopher Thomas Hobbes.
In an effort to explain the origins of government, Hobbes theorized on the primitive human condition before the rise of society: the condition of man in a purported “state of nature”. Hobbes imagined pre-political men to live individually, all against all, in brutal competition for nourishment and comfort. For primitive man, there were no legal limits on individual behavior; he lived by pure freedom of will, his grasping and greed only checked by the natural limits of the environment and violence from competitors. Given that life in such a state proved, as Hobbes famously put it, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” the philosopher speculated that the first political arrangements arose by consent of these warring individuals. Individuals contracted mutual agreements to temper the endemic violence of the natural state, and thus civil society was born.
Hobbes is recognized as a protoliberal thinker, laying some of the groundwork, but later figures more central to the liberal project took up the idea of a “state of nature”, particularly Locke and Rousseau. Hobbes’ “natural man” theory proved crucial to the formation of liberal thought because it offered two things: 1) a kind of general anthropology (a theory of humanity in its basic state which, in this case, characterized humans as individual and greedy); and 2) a rough theoretical basis for politics (man’s willingness to enter into social contract through the instinct of self-preservation).
Though his theory may sound fanciful or arcane to contemporary Americans, it is nonetheless one of the crucial grounds on which our political edifice is built. Hobbes projected “natural” humans as 1) individuals interested primarily in self-preservation, 2) by definition free, and 3) in constant quest of their own individual fulfillment, all against all. One can hear the echo of this anthropology, point for point, in our Declaration of Independence, when it lists our unalienable rights as “ Life,  Liberty and  the pursuit of Happiness,” each term corresponding to one of Hobbes’ stresses.
Central as it has proved in later Western history, there is nonetheless a serious problem with the “state of nature” theory. Simply put, it is a political myth that corresponds to nothing in actual history. The errors in Hobbes' “natural man” thesis are well-nigh glaring.
Most obviously, there is no such thing as “pre-social” human being. Humans are by definition social animals (indeed even our near relatives, chimpanzees and gorillas, are social animals) and there are no known examples of Homo sapiens, no matter how “primitive”, living in a condition anything like Hobbes projected. Even a cursory glance at Hobbes’ myth should reveal its shallowness, given that each human being is and always has been raised up in a family of one sort or another, in which cooperation and mutual aid, as well as limits and punishments, are basic constituents. Further, the stress in Hobbes’ theory on single, separate individuals in brutal competition for resources is problematic. Primitive humanity shows competition, but it is competition between groups, organized as families or clans, not between lone individuals spread out as discrete points on a terrain.
The “state of nature” theory was key for early liberal thinkers because it allowed them to legitimize government as a social contract willingly entered into by naturally “free” individuals. Human freedom was formulated in a radically individuated way on the basis of the Hobbesian myth.
Deneen sees this founding gesture of the liberal order as setting in motion a political practice that, by a deep historical irony, eventually brings into partial reality the mythical Hobbesian state. For Deneen, Hobbes’ “state of nature” theory ends up being a kind of perverse self-fulfilling prophecy of the society that liberalism ultimately creates. Though there never was an original “state of nature”, according to Deneen we are bringing one into being by means of our deep absorption of Hobbes’ theory.
Deneen underlines how from the very beginning liberal governments enforced policies designed to systematically weaken any human bonds or obligations (such as to church, guild, family) that were not mediated by the liberal state or formulated in terms of individual rights. From the start, the liberal state intervened in already established social webs, breaking them apart in order to 1) put the state in place of “nature”, so that it may finally 2) ensure the “natural” rights of those originally “free” individual men. Deneen explains how the “state of nature” myth was implemented:
In a reversal of the scientific method, what is advanced as a philosophical set of arguments [Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau] is then instantiated in reality. The individual as a disembedded, self-interested economic actor didn’t exist in any actual state of nature but rather was the creation of an elaborate intervention by the incipient state in early modernity, at the beginnings of the liberal order. … Few works have made this intervention clearer than the historian and sociologist Karl Polanyi’s classic study The Great Transformation.…
According to Polanyi, the replacement of [previous social arrangements] required a deliberate and often violent reshaping of local economies, most often by elite economic and state actors disrupting and displacing traditional communities and practices. The “individuation” of people required not only the separation of markets from social and religious contexts but people’s acceptance that their labor and its products were nothing more than commodities subject to price mechanisms, a transformative way of considering people and nature alike in newly utilitarian and individualistic terms.…[The goal was] to disassociate markets from morals and “re-train” people to think of themselves as individuals separate from nature and one another. As Polanyi pithily says of this transformation, “laissez-faire was planned.”
Later liberal thinkers like John Stuart Mill (1806-73) doubled down on this project, reformulating it in even more explicitly individual terms as a kind of culture war. It was understood, of course, that liberalism would not bring about a classless society, so Mill focused on what was needed for liberal societies to raise up sufficiently independent individuals to serve as a ruling class. Deneen:
In order to liberate these individuals from accident and circumstance, Mill insisted that the whole of society be remade for their benefit, namely by protecting their unique differences against oppressive social norms, particularly religious strictures and social norms governing behavior and comportment. Put another way, Mill argued that “custom” must be overthrown so that those who seek to live according to personal choices in the absence of such norms are at greatest liberty to do so.… Mill called for a society premised around “experiments in living”: society as test tube for the sake of geniuses who are “more individual.”
“Oppressive social norms”, “experiments in living”, “more individual”--this sounds strikingly post-1960s in many ways, doesn’t it? But Deneen is presenting the views of a 19th-century intellectual, a man writing well before the first Ford Model T’s. The historical lesson is perhaps that it takes time for ideas to move through institutions and finally be brought into mass social practice--but move they will. Of Mill’s projected society of “geniuses” Deneen writes:
We live today in the world Mill proposed. Everywhere, at every moment, we are to engage in experiments in living. Custom has been routed: much of what today passes for culture--with or without the adjective “popular”--consists of mocking sarcasm and irony.… Society has been transformed along Millian lines in which especially those regarded as judgmental are to be special objects of scorn, in the name of nonjudgmentalism.
grandfather of the hippy generation
Deneen sees this earlier liberal project of radical individuation, premised on contempt for traditions and customs, as finally linking up with market forces and the lure of fad and fashion, to create what he calls our liberal “anticulture.”
In this world, gratitude to the past and obligations to the future are replaced by a nearly universal pursuit of immediate gratification: culture, rather than imparting the wisdom and experience of the past so as to cultivate virtues of self-restraint and civility, becomes synonymous with hedonic titillation, visceral crudeness, and distraction, all oriented toward promoting consumption, appetite, and detachment. As a result, superficially self-maximizing, socially destructive behaviors begin to dominate society.
For Deneen, this is the end result of liberalism’s original “state of nature” myth as it combines with Mill’s “experiments in living”. Given the centrality of both these forms of radical individualism in modern liberalism, the problem is systemic.
Deneen argues that the liberal order's mythical stress on the naturalness of radical individualism is part of what now renders it unstable. He gives myriad examples of this instability, but we need only think in anthropological terms to see good reason for our current malaise. Such radically weaponized individualism doesn’t correspond to what human beings really are: social creatures that, for our very flourishing and sanity, depend on group bonds and deep loyalties that define both our humanity and our place in the cosmos. Against this, and by design, secular liberalism atomizes societies, replacing religious community and ethnic or family loyalty with a Hobbesian myth that theorizes humanity as an aggregate of grasping, self-directed loners. That we now see a surfeit of individuals struggling with a painful lack of meaning, even as they set out to compete against their peers in the market, is not, as Deneen would say, “an error in our implementation of liberal thought”, but rather exactly the kind of people liberalism set out to create: the “natural man”. This is one of the troubling paradoxes of liberalism as it becomes ever more itself:
Ironically … the political project of liberalism, is shaping us into the creatures of its prehistorical fantasy, which in fact required the combined massive apparatus of the modern state, economy, education system, science and technology to make us into: increasingly separate, autonomous, non-relational selves.
[Problems/Questions: Some readers may take issue with the connection I make between Hobbes and the wording of the Declaration of Independence, saying that 1) Locke’s understanding of the state of nature was more decisive for the Founders than Hobbes’, that 2) Locke’s version of the theory differed in key ways, and that 3) there is no good evidence directly linking Locke’s writing on the topic with an immediate Hobbesian influence. I’m aware of these questions, but will not attempt to settle them one way or another. I believe they’re somewhat moot in any case, given Hobbes’ importance as a political thinker in the protoliberal era. A more interesting way to frame the larger issue might be to ask to what degree the American founding was ultimately grounded in “natural right” thinking (in a Hobbesian register) and to what degree dependent on “natural law” thinking. I look forward to the forthcoming book by Timothy Gordon, who writes on this topic and who has argued that the Founders’ project would have been unintelligible without a deep conceptual grounding in the older natural law. I don’t know what Gordon’s precise arguments will be, as I haven’t gotten to his just-published title (Catholic Republic: Why America Will Perish Without Rome) but his approach seems promising. After all, even if the implementation of the American project over the course of centuries arguably depended more on stressing natural right, that doesn’t necessarily mean the founding conceptual framework didn’t depend largely on natural law. From what I have heard in interviews with Gordon, I suspect his work will include the argument that the American project is bound to founder once the last traces of a natural law understanding of key concepts have been bled out of the culture.]
Next: 2. Liberal individualism and statism reinforce each other in a vicious cycle
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