[This is part 2 of a 5-part article on Patrick Deneen’s book Why Liberalism Failed. Part 1 is here.]
2. Liberal individualism and statism reinforce each other in a vicious cycle
A vast population of such artificially "natural" individuals, with ever weaker cultural norms to moderate behavior, each insisting on his or her right to “make my own rules”, will necessarily become difficult to govern. In a regime where “experiments in living” are the norm, there will be few shared standards or customs to dictate interpersonal relations, sexual mores, or the borders between private and public space. There will likewise be no common cultural heritage to refer to when disagreements arise, making the state and its laws a necessary arbiter for differences that were previously dealt with at the local level. Liberalism must thus, again in a perverse twist, lead to less and less individual liberty as the liberal project progresses. Thus Deneen’s second major thesis.
Among both scholars and the general public, the debate over the religious and/or secular intentions of the American Founders continues unabated. One reason is evident enough: the American founding was a profoundly and subtly mixed phenomenon, the Founders framing a political order that would 1) suit the almost entirely religious population of the time, but 2) ensure that their new state remained carefully protected from the possibility of any one church taking over. This made eminent sense in the context. The Founders assumed an overwhelmingly Christian population as the one that would inherit and thrive under the political structure they built. They assumed it to such an extent that one of the most prominent, John Adams, could write:
We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge or gallantry would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution is designed only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for any other.
With this background and subsequent American history in mind, many subtle observers in recent decades have made a point that Deneen echoes. Namely: If American society has remained relatively stable in the decades following 1960, it is because it has been able to borrow on the store of (largely Christian) cultural capital left to it by the past. The strong family ethic, stress on personal responsibility, stigma on divorce and sexual license that most of America held to even during the last decades of the 20th century--these were largely an inheritance from more explicitly Christian earlier generations. Many millions of Americans now in their fifties benefited from this stability, which shaped their childhoods via mostly two-parent households and a social environment with roughly traditional moral standards. But given the more experimental and “counter-cultural” social mores of the late ‘60s and ‘70s, many of these same 50-somethings didn’t provide the same stability to their children. Having internalized the counter-cultural ethos, they raised children, now young adults, that consider culture itself to be mainly a matter of breaking whatever remains of the “oppressive” past in favor of a hedonistic liberation that is seen as synonymous with "progress". Thus we now face not only the unraveling of basic family structure, but at the same time such things as the nationwide abandonment of basic civics education. Ask a 20-something today about the Founders, and you are likely to hear: “They were all white slave-owners.” What you won’t get is any sense of the subtlety of what they wrought in framing our Constitution. Ask about Christianity, and you are likely to hear: “What? You don’t believe in evolution?”--as if religion and science were mutually exclusive. Yet, ironically, it is still the American constitutional order, along with our religiously-grounded respect for the dignity of individual conscience, that underpins the very society these 20-somethings live and breathe in. But for how long?
For many observers, the upshot in inescapable: these younger generations can't be counted on to maintain or defend our political order. One sees them high up in a tree, gleefully sawing away at the branches they sit on, sure that when those branches break they will land in Utopia. This is what Deneen means by his version of the now common lament:
Liberalism has drawn down on a preliberal inheritance and resources that at once sustained liberalism but which it cannot replenish. The loosening of social bonds in nearly every aspect of life--familial, neighborly, communal, religious, even national--reflects the advancing logic of liberalism and is the source of its deepest instability.
Again, it is a matter of the combined impact of the radical Millian individualism we discussed in part 1 (“experiments in living”) and the widespread belief that social change, as if by some inherent law of history, is always equal to Progress.
The repercussions of this steady, decade-by-decade withdrawal of cultural capital, our slow march to bankruptcy, are now beginning to be felt more painfully, and since there's no longer any cultural institution that might school the flailing experimenters in their inevitable conflicts, our tribes must look to the state to restore order. The is the paradox Deneen identifies: Liberal individualism must ultimately lead to increasing state intervention in daily life, and thus eventually undermine real liberty.
Deneen focuses on the increase of state intervention, but we might also note something we're seeing ever more of: corporate intervention. I’m thinking mainly of Silicon Valley’s growing efforts at social engineering, undertaken in the name of vague “community standards” or a need for “safety”. What “community”, we may ask, do they mean exactly? The whole of humanity? Whether it’s Mark Zuckerberg talking or some other Silicon Valley demigod, the claim that they speak for such a vast community is equally absurd. One also thinks, in terms of such interventions, of the growing power of corporate HR departments and, of course, university administrations, of which more below. Whether it is literally the state, then, or the new tech elite that polices our public discourse, intervention is becoming the new normal.
The problem with all this, as Deneen recognizes, is twofold. First, state laws and “speech codes” do not a culture make; and since we are deeply social beings, yearning for real cultural ties, the abstract notions of “community” on offer from government bureaucracies and corporate thought-police will necessarily leave us cold. As they will also leave us deeply suspicious. Second, how is it that liberal state bureaucracies and corporate ideologists have come to have so much direct power over our speech, our businesses, our actions? Growing around us we see new nexuses of power that we cannot attach to actual human faces or connect to any real heritage we recognize. There's a profound absenteeism about the powers that increasingly pull the strings.
Evidence suggests that nearly all of us, even staunch secular liberals, even tech enthusiasts, now feel the weight of this looming ersatz "community". How is it, we wonder, that our social order promises us such radical individual freedom, yet we seem ever more hemmed in and monitored in everything we say and do? Why this encroachment, year by year, of ever more surveillance, ever new metrics by which to check our behavior, our political loyalties, our personal contacts? Why, for many of us, do our careers now seem to hang in the balance under a pervasive monitoring? Why do many of us feel that our right to raise our children as we see fit, or our right to speak our ideas in public--two very fundamental rights--are on the verge of being taken away by powers we never voted into office?
For Deneen, the depth of this malaise is evidenced not only in the current populist revolts against liberal elites (Trumpism, Brexit, the rising power of the far right in France and elsewhere) but also in the ubiquity of dystopian fiction and films. We sense that something big is coming, that certain fundamental freedoms are under attack and may soon be no more, but we aren’t sure exactly how it will happen. Many of us also sense that whatever is coming is connected to the current regnant, globalizing liberal order, and so we must dislodge our distant elites while we still can.
Deneen demonstrates that this ever more invasive meddling of state and state-like structures in citizens' lives is underwritten by the very thoroughness with which liberalism has bulldozed the institutions that local societies once depended on (church, local economy, family, heritage). Avid to create its society of Millian individuals free of traditional bonds, liberalism destroyed all competition, and now must answer to that old warning: “You break it, you buy it.” Sadly, liberals in general believe that this new responsibility thrown at the state (“Heal our wounds! Provide better jobs! Protect our dignity! Keep our kids in line!”) can only be met by enacting … yet more liberalism. Deneen sees this as emphatically the wrong answer, as evidence in fact of a vicious cycle that liberal elites are predisposed by ideology not to recognize.
One of the most telling examples Deneen gives of this vicious cycle in action comes from the change in culture on university campuses. Until not long ago, American universities were understood as institutions upholding a particular cultural heritage (Western Europe, the United States) and saw their mandate as raising up citizens able to carry on the best of this heritage. The university was to offer a “liberal education” (in content more what we might call a humanist education, after Renaissance models) the goal being to civilize students in a particular cultural order. Many of the best of our universities were founded with a religious mandate, and until not long ago took that mandate seriously. The sexual revolution, the reframing of education as job training, and the new SJW politics of “diversity” have entirely overturned this previous civilizing mission:
One of the upheavals of the sexual revolution was the rejection of long-standing rules and guidelines governing the behavior of students at the nation’s colleges and universities. Formerly understood to stand in for parents--in loco parentis, “in place of the parent”--these institutions dictated rules regarding dormitory life, dating, curfews, visitations, and comportment. Adults--often clergy--were charged with continuing the cultivation of youth into responsible adulthood. Some fifty years after students were liberated from the nanny college, we are seeing not sexual nirvana but widespread confusion and anarchy, and a new form of in abstentia parentis--the paternalist state.
Long-standing local rules and cultures that governed behavior through education and cultivation of norms, manners, and morals came to be regarded as oppressive limitations on individual liberty. Those forms of control were lifted in the name of liberation, leading to regularized abuse of those liberties, born primarily of a lack of any sets of practices or customs to delineate limits on behavior, especially in the fraught arena of sexual interaction. The federal government, seen as the only legitimate authority for redress, exercised its powers to reregulate the liberated behaviors. But in the wake of disassembled local cultures, there is not longer a set of norms by which to cultivate self-rule, since these would constitute an unjust limitation upon our freedom. Now there can be only punitive threats that occur after the fact. Most institutions have gotten out of the business of seeking to educate the exercise of freedom through cultivation of character and virtue; emphasis is instead placed upon the likelihood of punishment after one body has harmed another body.
And so we enter the era of hysteria about “rape culture” on campus, a phenomenon entirely unsupported by statistics. Nevertheless, the “rape culture” claims are predictable enough given 1) third-wave feminism and 2) that campus culture itself promotes a hook-up approach to sexual relations. This has resulted in a nationwide undergraduate free-for-all, where young men are of course going to follow their biological inclinations, while young women, under the influence of alcohol, are going to end up engaging in “regret sex”, feeling the day after that they’ve been used, a feeling then reformulated days and sometimes months later as “I was raped”. What is to be done about this repeat phenomenon? The Obama Department of Education comes to the rescue by creating directives that allow unprincipled university administrations to validate all claims against young men, many of which claims, later, show little merit (cf. the ongoing saga of “Mattress Girl” or any number of other cases). Meanwhile the media takes up the “rape culture” narrative, even as it continues to promote sexual hedonism from the other side of its mouth, and the result is predictably a growing sense of sexual anomie: distrust between the sexes that leads soon to demands for signing of “consent forms” before sexual relations happen (an actual American development that one could hardly even imagine under Soviet rule) and a generalized reregulation of such things as shoulder pats or hugs (“Did I give you consent to touch me?”). In this way, step by step, the sexual revolution manages to turn what used to be the ritualized dance of relations between the sexes into a bureaucratically managed farce.
Here again, as Deneen points out, we can see the Hobbesian natural man mythology at work, this time implemented through university administrations, the media and the state:
This immorality tale is the Hobbesian vision in microcosm: first, tradition and culture must be eliminated as arbitrary and unjust (“natural man”). Then we see that absent such norms, anarchy ensues (“the state of nature”). Finding this anarchy unbearable, we turn to a central sovereign as our sole protector, that “Mortall God” who will protect us from ourselves (“the social contract”). We have been liberated from all custom and tradition, all authority that sought to educate within the context of ongoing communities, and have replaced these things with a distant authority that punishes us when we abuse our freedoms. And now, lacking any informal and local forms of authority, we are virtually assured that those abuses will regularly occur and that the state will find it necessary to intrude ever more minutely into personal affairs (“Prerogative”).
Many might guess from this example that Deneen will end by advising readers to vote for the Republican Party in hopes of restoring an earlier American social vision. But that guess would be wrong. Deneen provides analyses of this individualism/statism vicious cycle in other areas as well, for instance in our liberal economy, which commodifies nature, place and labor to radical degrees. When disastrous displacements inevitably result, the liberal state is then called upon to address the fallout. In this instance it is the policy agenda of Republicans that is more implicated. In fact Deneen sees our two-party system working in a kind of “pincer movement”, Democratic left and Republican right each doing its part to push the same deep liberal agenda: increasing individualism/increasing statism. He notes that the Republican right has long promised to promote two basic things: traditional family values and unregulated capitalism; and yet, oddly, it has only ever delivered on one of these two: the laissez-faire capitalism. Meanwhile, the Democratic left has also, in recent years, promised to promote two basic things: identity-based rights and dignity (especially in terms of sexuality) and strong social programs to ensure a more egalitarian outcome; and yet, again, our Democrats have only delivered on one of these: identity politics, with a special focus on sexual minorities. Deneen sees it as instructive that our two parties, apparently in bitter opposition to each other, both deliver only those goods that further individualize the citizenry: 1) radically unregulated capitalism, where winners have no responsibility to the larger community; 2) radical sexual autonomy, where sex is increasingly divorced from reproduction and family.
For Deneen, it is not merely an irony that this is what we end up with; rather, it is the “operating system” of advanced liberalism doing what it does. Neither Democratic nor Republican Party, which run as “applications” in this operating system, is capable of changing it, and so they now work in a “pincer movement” that further erodes any national unity.
Deneen sees advanced liberal society as one plagued by loneliness, a condition that results ultimately from liberalism's long and largely successful attempt to separate citizens from institutions like church, family, tradition, local economy, etc. (I cover Deneen's treatment of the systemic nature of this attempt in part 1.) With no thick communities in which to thrive, individuals feel weak, without anchor, and when their discontent arises, it is channeled at that same institution which essentially defines them as rights-bearing individuals: the liberal state. Protector of individual rights, the list of which keeps growing, the state is called upon to take up more and more of the general social burden, reapplying the glue that it busied itself unsticking over the course of centuries. The liberal state more often than not responds to these demands, as in some ways it must, and the Nanny State is born. As Deneen reads it, liberty ends up a necessary casualty.
Next: 3. Liberalism is grounded on an impoverished understanding of liberty
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