Why Liberalism Failed

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Patrick J. Deneen
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , January
     248 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In the wake of the conceptual revolution in ethics by Alasdair MacIntyre, and the rise of communitarian political theory, comes this diagnosis of political liberalism’s alleged failure. The failure of liberalism is due to its success: “liberalism was true to itself” and from early modernity onwards, deep fragmentation set in. Patrick Deneen is Professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame. According to him, contemporary liberalism pretends to be a neutral force while eschewing an interest in freedom of conscience, religion, association, and free speech. It has broken decisively from the legacy of ancient thought over what constitutes liberty. Whereas ancient philosophers established that political governance serves the critical task of self-discipline and virtue acquisition, contemporary liberalism reifies the managerial administration of the state apparatus, inspired by Hobbesian individualism and the Whiggish fixation on progress. 

With Tocqueville, Deneen argues that individualism breeds statism. While claiming otherwise, modern liberalism serves regime stability through market/state alliances and it aims to free us from commitments to particular loyalties in favor of the satisfaction of our appetites. Relationships and other objects of desire are valid for being chosen rather than adopted for virtue’s sake. More devastatingly, echoing the critique of normal politics by the environmental movement, Deneen claims that liberalism aims to be free of “the constraints of the natural world” in its accord with Baconian doctrine (49). Universities are also indicted for their total servitude to utility and ideology.

Does Deneen adapt his conservative bona fides mindful of the role of economics and the corporate dominance of the social fabric? No and yes. No, because Deneen largely dodges the dominant economic aspect of the story of liberalism. And so his constructive alternative to liberal capitalism in the area of political economy is difficult to discern. The vague scent of Chesterton’s distributism lies hidden between the references to small-scale craft economies and the praise he proffers to the agricultural poet Wendell Berry. Yes, however, since according to Deneen, conservatives have betrayed conservatism and traditional values by backing free trade and globalization which undermine those very values. He cites the financial crisis of 2008 as emblematic of the multifaceted crisis of liberalism. Was this a crisis of liberalism or capitalism? Deneen’s singular, penetrating, and counterintuitive insight is that these two are inseparable. 

The chief problem with Deneen’s argument is not his diagnosis but the perceived scope of its critique. Fundamentally, his argument is framed by the American experience, and the farther one gets from the United States, the less relevant his argument is. Other Western polities practice limits on liberalism’s reach. In Canada, red toryism has been a prominent strand that ties the nationalist dream to a weaker state, stronger mediating institutions, and an effective parliament. Christian democracy in Europe, though struggling mightily, has also proved a bulwark against individualism, notably in Germany and Italy. 

One strong argument of this book is that the polarized politics of the United States is a deceitful cover up of a more basic consensus. It is established on the basis of Plato’s “Noble Lie” which tells about the fundamental equality of all persons to intentionally mask the basis of all inequality that persists nevertheless. Classic and progressive liberals both “praise the rule of the electorate even as they seek to promote systematic governmental features that will minimize electoral influence” (162). The masquerade is a shared agreement on the basic terms of a meritocracy that distributes rewards on the basis of self-interest and creates a new aristocratic elite. Deneen goes to some lengths to drive home his point, which includes a root and branch critique of the Federalist Papers based on Tocqueville and Edmund Burke’s insights. Deneen’s point that the “invisible ideology” of liberalism is pervasive is persuasive. 

Perhaps Deneen’s weakest point is his dismissal of law as an infringement of informal, spontaneous order. I estimate that the brutal politics of the US Supreme Court lies behind this negative judgment. However, beyond the borders of the United States, the law is less politicized. In monarchies especially, the law is more tied to order and tradition, not the liberal administration of society by reference to abstractions. 

On the American constitution, Deneen is sharp to the point of abrupt: it is a form of technological control that harnesses self-interest for total national loyalty at the expense of partial loyalties. Like other American conservatives, Deneen has little use for multiculturalism, seeing it as a cover for a diversity that is actually viewpoint homogeny. Once again, the experience of other jurisdictions is not as pessimistic here: multiculturalism in Canada, for example, allows for subsidiary, overlapping micro-cultures to foster forms of a traditionalist ethos, in large part thanks to the influx of immigrants from many backgrounds, whose liberal aspirations are not secularized. Would that Deneen had allowed non-American experiences to nuance his conclusions. 

In the last chapter, Deneen sketches two possible denouements for liberalism: either it will succumb to the power of the “deep state” of administrative control that rules in the name of liberal legitimacy or there will be a regime change. In the west, “either outcome is a realistic possibility, neither is to be wished for” (181). But the absence of religion in his narrative is telling. The lack of references to the social entailments of theological doctrine, notably sin and providence, is an oversight. With David Brooks, I would say that liberalism’s central target was the doctrine of original sin, not virtue theory. A lack of theological reference implies a lack of reference to the churches. The book lacks a section on religiously inspired postliberal theologies (left and right), that resist liberalism’s ongoing but failing allure. As the discussion of Deneen’s work in venues like the New York Times and The Economist suggests, this book is a must read for all scholars who seek to understand the roots of our current, dreary socio-political landscape.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Paul Allen is Professor of Theological Studies at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada.

Date of Review: 
June 18, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Patrick J. Deneen is David A. Potenziani Memorial Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame. His previous books include The Odyssey of Political Theory,Democratic Faith, and a number of edited volumes. He lives in South Bend, IN.


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