Why Liberalism Failed by Patrick Deneen
(248 pages, Yale University Press, 2017)
Many commentators have observed that liberalism is coming apart.1 The liberal order no longer provides the security and happiness that it always promised. Some link the cause of liberalism’s decline to the decay of the culture or the rise of big government. Others think it can be fixed by adapting or tweaking the system. Few if any, however, attribute its failure to its success. Such is the intriguing thesis of Notre Dame Professor Patrick Deneen in his most recent book, Why Liberalism Failed.
His affirmation explains much. It shows why those searching for ways to nurse liberalism back to health seem to stall and cannot find traction. This thesis explains the fragmentation and polarization that is destroying the nation. Dr. Deneen says that “Liberalism has failed—not because it fell short but because it was true to itself.” As liberalism progresses, it is the victim of the success of its internal contradictions. It creates its own conditions to fail. There is no “fix.”
This is a shocking statement because liberalism has been the dominant ideology of the West for centuries. Under this regime, the West has prospered and produced unimaginable material abundance. It is the foundation of the democratic secular state that has dominated the political scene.
However, liberalism also produced a cultural wasteland that only grows greater with time. The liberal period has been far from peaceful. It has been regularly punctuated with grand conflicts, social upheaval, and spiritual desolation.
Looking at Internal Contradictions
Perhaps the best way to explain what has happened to liberalism is to look at its internal contradictions. They also help explain why its failure is only happening now.
Dr. Deneen cites two of these contradictions: the “achieving of complete and supreme freedom,” and the liberation of an autonomous individual from “places, relationships, memberships and even identities.” He shows how radical autonomy and supreme freedom undermine the unifying principles around which society might gather.
As people self-identify as almost anything, personal autonomy is making life impossible in society. Supreme freedom is erasing the social capital balance amassed over centuries. The result is an accelerated deterioration of society that is reaching its apex in the present state of disillusionment and fragmentation.
That’s why liberalism now has problems. It really has wildly succeeded beyond all expectations.
Failure on Many Fronts
Liberalism succeeded in the beginning because much of what worked in liberalism was not liberalism. Liberalism frequently advanced by living upon the accomplishments of pre-liberal times, especially that of Christendom.2 The institutions of family and faith provided much of the stability that offset the liberal tempest. Liberalism, like today’s governments, has written blank checks against diminishing social capital, has taken out mortgages against the future, and has lived (and spent) only for the moment.
Thus, Dr. Deneen explores the decay of liberalism in many fields: economy, education, technology and the liberal arts. He shows its necessary connection to statism. He exposes conservatism and progressivism as two sides of the same liberal coin.
Liberalism’s Crowning Achievement—An Anticulture
However, his description of liberalism as an “anticulture” deserves special mention since it explains so well today’s postmodern wasteland.
“The fundamental premise of liberalism is that the natural condition of man is defined above all by the absence of culture.” Liberalism targeted generational customs, practices, and rituals set in time and place that traditionally make up a culture. The organic community is replaced with a collection of autonomous individuals all pursuing their own interests. They are united by nothing save a “uniform and homogenized governance of promulgated law.”
The result is an unanchored, unpoetic society, which is everywhere and nowhere, living in the eternal present. Dr. Deneen calls this “ubiquitous and uniform anticulture” a crowning achievement, once again the product of liberalism’s success—not its failure.
Discussing a Post-Liberal Order
Of course, America is more than just the liberal order. No one can survive in a purely liberal climate. America is a complex and fascinating mixture of orders involving lingering customs, traditions, and religious convictions. However, liberalism does play an important role in society, and that is why it is important to understand its failure. People can avoid the frustration of trying to repair something that cannot, and should not, be fixed.
Dr. Deneen’s masterful study provides a compelling, clear, and scholarly analysis that helps people understand the failure of liberalism. He starts a much-needed conversation about America’s post-liberal future.
While his examination of the problem is complete, his suggestions for solutions are deliberately sketchy (lest he becomes an ideologue). He starts the conversation with general observations. He points to the need for organic bottom-up solutions, briefly mentioning the very questionable Benedict Option.3 One senses that a full treatment of possible solutions would call for another book rather than a short concluding chapter.
Curiously absent from this beginning conversation is mention of the specific role of religion and the Church. It would appear that as the Church is the guardian of culture, she should have a major role in seeking out solutions. A post-liberal future without the Church seems… a bit liberal. Again, such a discussion is beyond the scope of the book.
The central focus of Dr. Deneen’s book is to explain why liberalism failed, and this he does brilliantly.
As seen in The Imaginative Conservative.
- Gerald Gaus, Shane D. Courtland, and David Schmidtz, “Liberalism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).
- Francis Urquhart, “Christendom,” The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 3, (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908).
- John Horvat “The Dangers of the Benedict Option” in The Imaginative Conservative, (May 15, 2017).