[This is the last part of a 5-part essay on Patrick Deneen’s book Why Liberalism Failed. Return to part 1.]
5. Liberalism justifies and promotes an unsustainable relation to nature (plus Conclusion)
If in the interests of radical individual autonomy liberalism hollows out actual cultures, spreading anticulture, so also in relation to the natural world liberalism theorizes and promotes a kind of anti-nature. And again, not surprisingly, this novel theorization of nature is justified because, it is claimed, it will further human autonomy.
In the early modern period, European thinkers abandoned the medieval understanding of nature that saw it as a vast, mysterious book in which humans could read the laws and intentions of the Creator, replacing it with a more antagonistic view of nature as a force set against man, one he was called upon to defeat. Francis Bacon (whom Hobbes served as secretary) was one of the seminal thinkers in this shift.
[Science and technology are] arguably the greatest source of our liberation [from natural limits] and simultaneously the reason for our imperiled environment, the deformations wrought by our own technologies on our personhood, and deep anxiety over our inability to control our own innovations. The modern scientific project of human liberation from the tyranny of nature has been framed as an effort to “master” or “control” nature, or as a “war” against nature in which its study would provide the tools for its subjugation at the hands of humans. Francis Bacon--who rejected the classical arguments that learning aimed at the virtues of wisdom, prudence, and justice, arguing instead that “knowledge is power”--compared nature to a prisoner who, under torture, might be compelled to reveal her long-withheld secrets.
… Yet nature seems not to have surrendered. As the farmer and author, Wendell Berry has written, if modern science and technology were conceived as a “war against nature,” then “it is a war in every sense--nature is fighting us as much as we are fighting it. And … it appears that we are losing.” Many elements of what we today call our environmental crisis--climate change, resource depletion, groundwater contamination and scarcity, species extinction--are signs of battles won but a war being lost.
For the medievals, man was part of nature, but with the early modern rejection of Aristotle and natural law philosophy a space was opened up, man was theoretically "liberated" from the natural world, and a new human freedom was championed--a freedom from both 1) the natural environment and 2) anything that might be claimed as man’s essence. Over the ensuing centuries, this dual directionality of man’s freedom grew ever starker: he neither had to submit to the natural world around him, nor even conform to any given nature as man. This process has nearly reached an end point. Even as our negative impact on ecosystems is becoming impossible to ignore, in our academies the notion of a human nature is widely denounced as an oppressive “ideology” or "essentialism". Those denouncing the idea of a human nature claim to be doing so in the interests of oppressed non-Western cultures or marginalized sexual minorities, but the repercussions of their revolt are much wider in scope. One almost suspects that underlying their philosophical stance against essentialism may be something quite other than any desire to liberate oppressed groups. (Please pardon my short coughing fit here.)
Deneen relates this liberal shift against nature to perverse developments like transhumanism, a movement gaining ever more adherents and which insists that our nature as humans can be “remade” or “improved” and death defeated. Of course this latter demonstrates the same view of nature as malleable material that we see in modern approaches to the environment, the only difference being that here it is human nature that is to be remade according to individual wishes. And again, the same view animates or underpins recent movements claiming that sex is not essentially related to reproduction (as with much contemporary feminism) or that “gender identity” is not related biological sex (the LGBTQwerty movement’s current battle front). To take yet another example Deneen doesn’t mention, one might mention our virtual epidemic of cosmetic surgery, a practice once hidden and cause for embarrassment, now increasingly normalized. "I had some work done. Like the result?" The previous century's stigma against using pseudo-medical technologies to modify one's own appearance has become passé.
Under advanced liberalism, then, the person is no longer grounded in 1) a natural environment, 2) a particular biological sex, or even 3) the givenness of his/her own body in terms of appearance or the phenomenon of aging. That dystopian science fiction repeatedly takes up all these forms of disconnect proves that although this revolt against nature is deep and widespread, there is nonetheless a culture-wide awareness of a lurking “revenge of the repressed” waiting in our near future.
Again, our more philosophical critics will trace most of these developments to the early modern revolt against Aristotle and natural law. Enlightenment thinkers adopted this anti-Aristotelian stance whole cloth and, combining it with a stress on free markets and capitalist development, liberalism weaponized it, creating the new understanding of science. For our modern West, worshipful of this science, nature is no longer a Book to be read in service to insight and wisdom; it is rather to be unveiled and exploited in service to the need for new technologies and products, which allow us to live in ever greater “comfort”, this term often meaning mostly: ever greater distance from the soil and natural processes. And if these technologies and products are harmful to local environments where they are produced, a solution is at hand. With the development of transportation and the new mobility, the rough interchangeability of place, liberal elites externalize destruction of natural environments by simply 1) moving place, or 2) ensuring that the worst destruction occurs in undeveloped nations, where populations must suffer what they must, unable to defend their forests, land, or water.
Given this historical/technological context, it is again no surprise that dystopian literary and film visions of our future depict a ruling elite that is at least part-artificial in body, mentally and ethically deranged, and always disconnected from any specific territory. Actual territories, meanwhile, are depicted as polluted and barely sustainable, the proletarian or rebel denizens stuck in them living out hardscrabble lives and facing impossible odds against their rulers. The very popularity of this science fiction, as Deneen recognizes, proves that most citizens living in advanced liberal societies are well aware that liberalism is a false ideological veil that threatens to tear asunder any decade now.
Many of these topics have been widely discussed going back decades. What is powerful in Deneen’s presentation is 1) his linking of this current looming crisis with the original gestures of liberal thought, as well as 2) his observation that our deformations both of wider nature and, more recently, of human nature (transhumanism, radical feminism, the trans craze, etc.) have origins traceable to one and the same liberal shift in the understanding of nature, a shift formulated centuries ago.
“The end of liberalism is in sight.”
This is Deneen’s prognosis, based on a many-faceted analysis of the liberal project’s fundamental grounds as they work themselves out in Western societies. In my own reading, if I were to put it in a nutshell, Deneen argues that liberalism will fall because it is ultimately incompatible with one of the key constituents of human flourishing: culture.
Of course Deneen is not the first to recognize the problems of "liberal culture" outlined above. One thinker he nowhere cites, but who wrote compellingly on many of the same issues in the decades leading up to World War II, was Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana. What makes Deneen's book new and, I would argue, essential, is his brilliant analysis of the stark paradoxes at the heart of liberal theory, and what these paradoxes have wrought in terms of outcome. In review, here are the main paradoxes he treats: 1) that liberalism's failure is a result of its too thorough success; 2) that the Hobbesian "state of nature", though mythical in terms of its depiction of the human past, is nonetheless becoming a perverse reality through liberal fiat; 3) that radical individualism necessarily gives rise to increasing statism; 4) that the early modern "liberation" from nature coincides with our increasing enslavement to new masters: Economy and Technology. In laying out these paradoxes, Deneen seems to stress that it is their very character as paradox that makes it hard for us to recognize their fatal weight.
If Deneen is right in his prognosis, that liberalism is coming to an end point, what does he propose we do?
Here we come to what I see as another of the special virtues of his approach. Deneen manages to combine deep diagnostic insight on the fallout of liberal ideology with an equally deep theoretical humility as to possible remedies. He offers no grand blueprint of what might come after liberalism, and in fact cautions that any attempt to draw up such a blueprint would be premature and almost certainly self-defeating.
There are two reasons. The first is that there is much in the liberal order that we don’t want to abandon. Yes, although Deneen is unsparing in his critique of the excesses brought on by liberal ideology, he maintains a keen appreciation for liberalism’s successes over the centuries, citing many of the things avid liberals would also cite. The second is that he recognizes the totalizing threat of political blueprints per se, especially in our post-Enlightenment period. He suspects that those who would draw up a new blueprint in theoretical rejection of liberalism would only be bringing yet more of the disaster we have suffered already from liberalism’s competing ideologies, Marxism and fascism. This threat of falling into one despotism or another is clear in his mind as he suggests alternative ways our present may play out.
This denouement might take one of two forms. In the first instance, one can envision the perpetuation of a political system called “liberalism” that, becoming fully itself, operates in forms opposite to its purported claims about liberty, equality, justice, and opportunity. Contemporary liberalism will increasingly resort to imposing the liberal order by fiat--especially in the form of an administrative state run by a small minority who increasingly disdain democracy. End runs around democratic and populist discontent have become the norm, and backstopping the liberal order is the ever more visible power of a massive “deep state,” with extensive powers of surveillance, legal mandate, police power, and administrative control. …
[A second possible denouement would be] the end of liberalism and its replacement by another regime. Most people envisioning such scenarios rightly warn of the likely viciousness of any successor regime, and close to hand are the examples of the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the rise of fascism, and Russia’s brief flirtation with liberalism before the imposition of communism. While these brutal and failed examples suggest that such possibilities are unlikely to generate widespread enthusiasm even in a postliberal age, some form of populist nationalist authoritarianism or military autocracy seems altogether plausible as an answer to the anger and fear of a postliberal citizenry.
Faced with these two possible outcomes, Deneen suggests not a new grand blueprint, but rather undertaking “tentative first steps” to "seed the ground" for ways of living yet to come. He suggests three, which may be summed up as:
1) Acknowledge the achievements of liberalism; eschew any desire for an impossible “return” to some preliberal age. Build upon these liberal achievements while abandoning the foundational philosophical positions that allowed for liberal failure.
2) Outgrow the age of ideology. Deneen: “Instead of trying to conceive a replacement ideology (or returning to some updated version of an alternative, such as a renascent Marxism), we should focus on developing practices that foster new forms of culture, household economics, and polis life.”
3) Allow any new theory of politics to develop organically, based on the experiences of lived communities. From “the cauldron of such experience and practice, a better theory of politics and society might ultimately emerge,” one that retains the “rightful demands” liberalism itself makes, “particularly for justice and dignity.”
Deneen closes his magisterial Why Liberalism Failed with a consideration of the challenges faced by those who would take up these “tentative steps”. Chief among these challenges is the difficulties of fostering and defending new cultural models in the midst of our growing and every more dysfunctional “anticulture.” His vision of cultural viability going forward shares much with the projects of other critics and thinkers writing at present, such as the Benedict Option of Rod Dreher (whom he mentions), or the philosophical focus on practices and communities of practice of Alasdair MacIntyre.
Deneen’s book is a must read for those who want to get at the roots of what now ails the West. There is much, very much, in it that I haven’t mentioned. I only hope I have identified and roughly outlined the main theses.
Return to Why Liberalism Failed: Introduction and Part 1.
Order Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed at Amazon.
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