Book Review: “Why Liberalism Failed by Patrick J. Deneen”
Despite what the title suggests, the central thesis of Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed isn't that liberalism has failed. Rather, it’s that liberalism has won — and won big.
For those of us who live in modern democracies, recognizing the philosophical assumptions that guide our lives can be challenging. We tend to think of ourselves as unburdened by the ideological weights that so possessed our ancestors. We think of ourselves as ideologically neutral, answering to the facts as they present themselves. Our problems result from practical concerns, surely not from our way of thinking. This, as Deneen suggests, is not merely an accident. It’s one of the keys to liberalism’s success as an ideology:
This political philosophy [liberalism] has been for modern Americans like water for a fish, an encompassing political ecosystem in which we have swum, unaware of its existence…unlike the visibly authoritarian regimes that arose in dedication to advancing the ideologies of fascism and communism, liberalism is less visibly ideological and only surreptitiously remakes the world in its image.
Deneen, a professor of political philosophy at Notre Dame, is a concise and erudite author. He zeros in on current societal issues and traces them with logical precision back to their philosophical roots. He suggests that the problems faced by our modern democracies — rising inequality, receding liberal arts programs, the dissolution of local communities — aren't just bugs in the liberal system. Rather, they’re features. As Deneen puts it himself, “Liberalism has failed — not because it fell short, but because it was true to itself. It has failed because it has succeeded.”
The first part of the book hearkens back to the ideological bedrock of liberalism. Deneen cites political philosophers such as Locke, Mill, and Bacon. He illustrates that, far from being an un-ideological political philosophy, liberalism is rooted in various assumptions about the human condition. Above all, liberalism prioritizes the liberty of the individual:
Liberalism rejects the ancient conception of liberty as the learned capacity of human beings to conquer the slavish pursuit of base and hedonistic desires…Liberalism instead understands liberty as the condition in which one can act freely within the sphere unconstrained by positive law…Liberty, so defined, requires liberation from all forms of association and relationships, form family to church, from schools to village and community, that exerted control over behavior through informal and habituated expectations and norms.
This self-perpetuating cycle of liberation, as each successive generation tears down the economical and moral restrictions set upon it by previous generations, results eventually in “the depletions of moral and material reservoirs upon which it has relied.” As Americans continue to wage war on each other from across the political divide, they fail to see that the liberal system profits equally from their respective gains.
Conservatives are defined by Deneen as “first-wave” or classical liberals. (Indeed, many mainstream conservatives have adopted this label in recent times.) While most conservatives vie for individualism, progressive liberals on the other hand strive towards statism. These two supposedly competing political ideas work in tandem, furthering the goals of their opposite number. Progressives constantly erode cultural norms and traditions, while conservatives expand the power and freedom of an already encroaching market:
Individualism and statism advance together, always mutually supportive, and always at the expense of lived and vital relations that stand in contrast to both the the starkness of the autonomous individual and the abstraction of our membership in the state…the state becomes the main driver of individualism, while individualism becomes the main source of expanding power and authority of the state.
The latter half of the book is dedicated to fleshing out problems liberalism creates in various areas of public life such as technology, culture, and education. But by far the most interesting chapter, and the one most aptly captures the spirit of the book is “The New Aristocracy,” in which Deneen suggests that the goal of liberalism was never to abolish aristocracy, but simply to create a better one.
The aristocracy of liberalism is comprised of the most capable among us: those with ambition, intelligence, and a desire for power. In a liberal society, the cream rises to the top: moving to Washington or Silicon Valley and abandoning their local communities. In perhaps the most terrifying passage I've read in recent memory, Deneen cites Hamilton outlining his plan for a new federal government. Hamilton believed that local and state politics hold little promise for those who are destined for greatness. “‘Commerce, finance, negotiation, and war seem to comprehend the objects which have charms for minds governed by that passion: and all the powers necessary to those objects ought in the first instance to be lodged in the national depository.”
As I read through Why Liberalism Failed, I was reminded of a much more sinister work of political nonfiction written by a man named Alexsandr Dugin. That book is called The Fourth Political Theory. Like Deneen, Dugin believes that liberalism is in the process of failing and that something new must rise up in its place. Of course, Dugin’s solution is to overhaul the entirety of modernity. His argument goes that since liberalism and modern culture are essentially bankrupt, the only solution is to start fresh through “all-out war.” Dugin is also a bit of a fascist loon.
Deneen’s analysis of modern liberalism is just as terrifying as Dugin’s. There’s something deeply unsettling about the dying of such a pervasive ideology. Especially when you consider what might be just around the corner. As Deneen mentions in the preface to the book, Why Liberalism Failed was completed three weeks before the 2016 presidential election. The content of the book took shape long before the election of Donald Trump and Brexit: two very troubling indicators of the direction Western society and liberalism at large are heading in.
So what’s the alternative? What comes next after liberalism? Are we headed for damnation as suggested by a fatalistic Russian? Deneen suggests there may be something more: a better political ideology, or perhaps no ideology at all. One that takes what liberalism gets rights and combines it with a sense of community, genuine culture, and personal morality. Why Liberalism Failed isn’t a call for overhaul, it’s a call for reform: not of our politics, but of ourselves, of our way of thinking. Deneen demands we take a closer look at the philosophical assumptions that so pervasively control our fates. They might just be our end.
Why Liberalism Failed is a sobering look at an ideological turning point in history. It’s one of the few books deserving of being called revelatory. It’s a rare opportunity for a look at where we’re going. If liberalism is indeed on the way out, then it’s time to look ahead, past the end of history and beyond.