It’s a tribute to Patrick Deneen that the conversations sparked by his 2018 book Why Liberalism Failed have been almost as interesting as the book itself. Deneen is hardly the first observer to notice that something has gone awry with the dominant order of the Western world. His diagnosis of that failure is not wholly original either—good ideas never are—having strong affinities with the thought of Alasdair MacIntyre and Christopher Dawson, and drawing on sources as diverse as Karl Polyani, Wendell Berry and (especially) Toqueville. Why Liberalism Failed offers a slim, elegant indictment of the broken promises of the liberal order, with a thesis as easy to digest as it is difficult to stomach: “Liberalism has failed because it has succeeded.” The characteristic woes of the modern West—staggering inequality, citizen disengagement, environmental degradation, amoral technologism, the simultaneous corporatization of the university and its transformation into an ideological hothouse—are all outworkings of the inner logic of liberalism itself.
It’s likewise to Deneen’s credit that critics of Why Liberalism Failed have done little to dispute the book’s demonstration of how the fundamental premises of liberalism—both classical and progressive—are implicated in these contemporary problems. Instead, the sharper critiques concentrate on the backward-looking and forward-looking elements of Deneen’s analysis, his historical account of liberalism and his proposals for a post-liberal future.
Deneen is a political theorist by training, and it shows. His condensed history of liberalism is unabashedly idea-driven and centered on texts, with a few key thinkers supporting a large part of the argument: Bacon, as the prophet of a mechanistic and exploitative understanding of nature; Hobbes and Locke, as authors of liberalism’s individualist anthropology; and Madison and Hamilton as the most articulate examples of liberal thought’s role in shaping the young United States. The priority Deneen gives to political philosophy is typical of the great intellectual parlor game of right-leaning thinkers, “When did it all go wrong?,” of which Richard Weaver’s classic Ideas Have Consequences (1948) and the first several chapters of Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option (2017) are exemplars. Deneen’s point of departure is in early modern thought; for him, as C.S. Lewis said of modern science, liberalism was “born in an unhealthy neighborhood and at an inauspicious hour.”
Deneen’s philosophical approach has its share of pitfalls. First, the privileging of ideas over material factors preemptively shushes the suspicion that, in Russell Kirk’s phrase, “Things were in the saddle,” or at least retorts that it was ideas that put them there. Not all readers will accept this working assumption, which arguably weakens Deneen’s argument when it comes to technological and environmental concerns. Second, Deneen’s economical account of liberalism’s essential logic necessarily flattens a great deal of historical complexity even in the intellectual realm. As a reviewer for The Economist, the chief standard bearer for full-spectrum liberalism, justly puts it, “Deneen is an extreme lumper.” Such lumping provides an opening for “splitter” critics who wish to recover aspects of the liberal tradition they favor in the face of Deneen’s comprehensive assault. Thus David French, perhaps the most earnest advocate for fusionist movement conservatism in the world today, wants to distinguish between the liberalism of the American Revolution and that of the French (Revolution, that is). French is not wrong in observing that Deneen’s account of the American founding seems one-sided, understating the concern of the Founding generation (and classical republicanism more generally, one might add) with forming virtuous citizens and communities, not simply free-standing individuals free to pursue their self-interest as part of a new liberal empire. As French further points out, there is a reason that Edmund Burke (who features prominently in Deneen’s post-liberal prescriptions), himself a liberal in many respects, looked kindly on the American revolt and not on the French. So perhaps we have simply departed from the right sort of liberalism, but could get back on track if we tried hard enough.
Ultimately, though, French’s critique doesn’t land. It fails to truly engage with Deneen’s claim that both classical and progressive liberalism, through the atomizing work of the market and the state, have sapped the foundations of pre-liberal or non-liberal values and institutions that sustain the liberal order. Even if French is right that “individuals who embrace the most basic virtues of self-governance — complete your education, get married, and wait until after marriage to have children — continue to enjoy opportunities and autonomy,” the assumptions and architecture of liberal society (again, expressed in both state and market as well as the wider culture) are making these verities increasingly difficult to sustain. Under these circumstances, there is little reason to believe that only redoubled moralism and constitutional piety is required for all to be well. One need not accept the totality of Deneen’s historical account of liberalism to recognize that he has its contemporary predicament dead to rights. And if that is the case, we must recognize with Deneen that “there can be no going back, only forward.”
What of the way forward, then? Deneen’s proposals for are purposefully vague. A post-liberal order, he writes, must not seek to replace one comprehensive ideology with another, but rather base itself on the rehabilitation of communal practices: local resistance to homogenizing liberal “anticulture,” “household economics,” and new or renewed forms of civic participation and self-governance.
Some critics find this proposed localist renaissance impractical or even sinister; others find it insufficiently radical. In the latter category one finds Adrian Vermeule, a professor of constitutional law at Harvard and one of the more interesting political thinkers of our time. Vermeule’s friendly critique of the denouement of Why Liberalism Failed is two-pronged. First, says Vermeule, Deneen provides no substantive vision of the good to replace liberalism’s bad-faith denial of one; disclaiming “ideology” cannot release us from the need of defining what principles should actually shape a post-liberal future. In Vermeule’s case, the needed principles are those of integral Catholicism. Second, Vermeule argues that the retreat into localism, waiting for liberalism to collapse of its own internal contradictions, is a dead end, a strategy captive to liberalism’s own pretensions to pluralism. Instead, non-liberal actors should seek to transform the liberal order from within, and make use of liberalism’s own machinery (including the modern state) where possible to do so.
While Vermeule’s integralist alternative might have the advantage of conceptual clarity and confidence of purpose, it does not recommend itself to those who do not share his theological priors. Nor is it obvious that his vision of “integration from within” is more immediately “practical” than proliferating localist countercultures; one wonders where he precisely he expects integral Catholic states to emerge, outside certain precincts of Eastern Europe. Vermeule’s occasional wry label for his political project, “The Boromir Option,” acknowledges another objection: the worry that the institutions that have grown up with liberal modernity, like Tolkien’s One Ring, might be unsuited for being turned to other, more salubrious purposes than the ones they now pursue. In any case, Vermeule’s challenge to Deneen underscores how much remains unsaid by Why Liberalism Failed, and how much work remains for would-be-post-liberals to disentangle themselves from the “gravity well” of the old order.
What is the cost of doing so, however? One ought not to give short shrift to left-liberal critics who see in Deneen’s “little platoons” a return to provincial forms of tyranny. Jennifer Szalai, in what is otherwise a very bad review, points out that
“Home may be where the heart is, but it can also be the site for homegrown prejudice, petty grievances and a vicious cruelty. Deneen is so determined to depict liberalism as a wholly bankrupt ideology that he gives exceedingly short shrift to what might have made it appealing — and therefore powerful — in the first place.”
To be fair to Deneen, he recognizes that liberalism has many genuine achievements, drawing on and expanding classical and Christian ideas of the dignity of the individual, even if these achievements have been “disfigured” by a misguided anthropology. Deneen claims that humane post-liberal order must conserve liberalism’s advances.
What then to do about pluralism—or rather, the fact of plurality of political views, cultures, and substantive conceptions of the good? Deneen would argue that liberal pluralism is fundamentally flawed, insofar as it maintains peace only by relegating difference to socio-political irrelevance. Yet it is easy to see why not only Deneen’s elite “liberalocracy” might fear a post-liberal settlement, but so would all other minorities who might fall afoul of local majorities, whether marked by race, faith, lifestyle or political creed. Though flawed, liberalism is a creed for minorities of one kind or another, because it favors, or at least purports to favor, process over outcomes, forms over content, the rules of the game over pre-prescribed winners. The groups that have flourished most conspicuously under liberal conditions have thus tended to be minorities at once exceptional and marginal, winners in the competitive marketplace but social outsiders: Quakers in 18th-century England, say, or Jews in the 20th-century United States.
The inability of many to conceive of a humane, law-bound alternative to the liberal order explains much of the pointing-and-sputtering that has greeted Deneen’s book in certain quarters. That hurdle of imagination should not be too readily dismissed, at the risk of discarding the good along with the bad. If Deneen is right, liberalism is a parasitic growth on the gnarled trunk of Western civilization. One would do well not to burn down the host in the process of pruning.
Deneen, Patrick J. Why Liberalism Failed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018.