Why Liberalism Failed is a slim volume by Patrick J. Deenen, a Catholic and professor of political science at Notre Dame University. He has written a handful of books on the evolving state of liberal democracy, much in the tradition of political scientist extraordinaire Alexis de Tocqueville. This particular contribution may well end up being his masterwork.
e book is a dense and challenging read, but the thesis itself is fairly simple: we see that liberalism is currently battling crises, several of which seem well nigh insurmountable. But, as per Deenen, these crises are of liberalism’s own making; that is, they derive from certain fundamental contradictions at the very heart of liberal ideology. The house is divided from within, it is falling apart, and this book is an articulate attempt at a post-mortem. One is reminded of the evocative image of the ouroboros — the serpent that devours itself.
First, a quick primer: the modern era has given us three ideologies, two of which — communism and fascism — have died. Liberalism is the undisputed winner to the extent that, like fish in water, we take it for granted. We would struggle to pinpoint its imprints in our everyday lives, it is writ into our very DNA. We forget it is simply an ideology.
Deenen reminds us that all ideologies have two components that determine their success: an anthropology and a plan. Liberalism’s anthropology — its fundamental assumptions about human nature — trace back to the social contract theories of John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Hobbes. In a fundamental break with tradition, these modern philosophers envisioned man as being ‘born free’ and bearing certain ‘natural rights’, foremost being the fundamental right of self-determination. Man relinquishes some of these rights as the necessary cost of membership in human society, to maintain law and order. The plan of the liberal project is, therefore, a balancing act, focusing on the constant expansion of individual freedom within the social domain.
Towards this end, liberalism relies on three key tools. First, a restricted and effective government to preserve social order; second, the free market economy which sifts winners and losers; and third, modern science and technology which enable the individual to overcome the limitations of brute nature and redefine the world in his image. These three tools act as levers for course correction in society.
This in turn gives rise to two political tendencies within the citizenry: fidelity to the community versus fidelity to the individual — or, in more familiar terms — the left and right. The left relies on government authority to enforce equality of outcome in society. The right depends on the free market to ensure individual liberty, or rather, equality of opportunity. These two ends are fundamentally opposed and it is this inherent tension of left and right, progressivism versus conservatism, which fundamentally advances the liberal project.
A key reason for the phenomenal success of this project is that liberalism incorporates some of the finest traditions of Western and Christian political thought: freedom, human dignity and rational thought. Indeed, when the founding fathers of the United States hit upon this magic formula, they thought they had discovered the holy grail of politics, a perpetual motion device, a self-correcting ideology for all ages and men. It was a heady thought.
So why is everything breaking down around us today?
One rather obvious issue, Deenen points out, is liberalism’s core axiom that humans are autonomous entities and thereby, in a sense, distinct from nature. This assumption lies at the root of our war with nature. Modern science, as posited by Francis Bacon and René Descartes, was the engine that would “make us masters and possessors of nature”, and whereas this attitude most certainly brought unprecedented success and prosperity to liberal society, it is also directly responsible for today’s global ecological crisis which has no parallel in human history.
A second, and far more pernicious, flaw is liberalism’s decidedly cynical view of humanity, a portrait straight out of Machiavelli, where every man is a scoundrel and a pirate. Hobbes describes it best: “I put for a general inclination of all mankind, a perpetual and restless desire of power after power that ceaseth only in death.” For the fathers of the liberal project, the best way to tame this savage and depraved humankind was to re-architect society such that greed was pitted against greed and self-interest clashed with self-interest, giving us the system of checks and balances that we have today.
These axioms, we now know well, are no longer tenable. Over the last 50 years, we have learned with absolute utter certainty that we are not apart from nature — to ravage nature is to ravage ourselves, we live and die with it. We are also starting to realise that human greed cannot be contained by mere ideology.
Moreover, over the centuries, as documented by the eminent Max Weber and others, religious values and traditional social structures provided critical support for the ascent of modern society. But at the same time, with its uncompromising focus on individualism and ever-expanding freedom, liberal ideology has undermined tradition to the point that, today, institutions such as marriage, family, community and culture have all but collapsed. And there is no element within liberalism itself to replenish these precious resources. In this sense, liberalism is non-renewable.
The West has tried to address these issues in many ways, most notably by greatly expanding the role of government and promoting a global free market. But left and right solutions will only make things worse, Deenen insists. To keep up this misguided approach will result in a paradoxical state where “extreme licence coexists with extreme oppression.”
Hints of an answer may lie in tradition. Deneen repeatedly notes how the fundamental definition of liberty was reworked for the liberal project. Within liberalism, ‘liberty’ refers to the freedom to do as one pleases within one’s own personal space. That sounds perfectly nice and reasonable, but in such a world, as Aleksandr Solzheitsyn laments, “Voluntary self-restraint is almost unheard of: everyone strives toward further expansion to the extreme limit of legal frames.”
The traditional notion of liberty, however, dating back to the ancient Greeks, was liberation from one’s own baser instincts. We find the echo of this over the centuries, most recently in Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi who based his critique of modern civilisation on the glaring disconnect between personal morality and social emancipation. Gandhi would sometimes startle his visitors with the rhetorical question: what good is swaraj [self-rule] if one is still a slave to one’s own base self?
However, the reader must be warned that this is not an easy book. Deenen’s easy and conversational style is likely to evoke an instinctive reaction among those who subscribe to liberalism’s utopian vision, who believe the big problems of today can be remedied with tweaks and band-aids. Indeed, reviews of this book in mainstream media have been sharply divided along left/right lines. Furthermore, readers with little exposure to doomsayers such as Friedrich Nietzsche, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Neil Postman and the like will find Deenen’s matter-of-fact attitude disconcerting, especially the way he adapts the conclusions of these writers without taking the trouble to justify them.
However, this frustration is felt most strongly at the end: Deenen has no practical out-of-the-box solution for us. It is clear we need something from outside of liberalism. We need new axioms that make sense in these trying times. We need a way out of the metaphysical black hole of moral relativism. Deenen suggests looking for answers in the lived experience of small communities. People living together in generational harmony can rediscover the real meaning of culture and develop an anthropology for a new ideology, he posits. It is clearly an uphill task.
But first we need to fully diagnose the disease within liberalism itself. We need to confront the demons in the ideology and we need to learn from our mistakes. And on that count, this slim and articulate contribution by Patrick J. Deenen is required reading.