Patrick Deneen’s book Why Liberalism Failed, the fruit of decades spent thinking through the riddles of the modern political order, was only expected to engage – as Deneen has put it – “a small audience of political theorists and like-minded discontents”. But it landed in 2018, just as the liberal consensus was beginning to unravel, and the book was thrust into the spotlight.
The liberal establishment found itself caught between the emerging economic nationalism of Donald Trump and Brexit, on the one hand, and the unreconstructed socialism of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, on the other. Leading figures across the political spectrum, from Barack Obama and Cornel West to Rod Dreher and Ross Douthat, hailed Deneen’s work for its insights into the liberal order’s tendency toward self-destruction.
At that time, it became fashionable to quote a line from Yeats’s The Second Coming: “the centre cannot hold.” But speaking to Professor Deneen over Skype two years on from his acclaimed book, I begin to wonder whether the liberal centre did hold after all.
As Deneen himself concedes in our conversation, the post-liberal economic agenda of Donald Trump “ended up having a short lifespan” and the Democratic establishment was eventually successful in palming off the Sanders challenge with the prospect of Joe Biden, “the last gasp of the liberal left”. In the UK, meanwhile, we are still yet to set sail for the distant shores of Brexit Britain and the Corbyn project looks well and truly dead.
Deneen, however, thinks that “political transformations of the type that we’re talking about don’t happen in a year or two. We’re in fairly early innings of this transformation.”
If we are to march on to a post-liberal age, though, Deneen seems keen to avoid the pitfalls of the illiberal alternatives as they are currently offered. He is interested in the emerging “Blue Labour” and “Red Tory” movements that prioritise moderated markets and stable family formation, and he says his next work is looking for new answers in the old “British conservative tradition” of Cobbett, Disraeli and Chesterton.
However, when pressed for a summary of his political programme, he warns against any neat answers: “People usually say ‘what’s the solution here?’” he notes. “I think in some ways that’s a reflection of our formation as liberal human beings: that we can get the right answer to solve the problem of politics.”
What he does offer is a precise critique of liberalism. One of its biggest blind spots, in Deneen’s view, results from its historic redefinition of “liberty”. His work recounts how the past half millennium of thought has transformed liberty from its classical conception, personal and communal self-governance achieved through discipline and the virtues, into a modern ideal of individual autonomy achieved through the dissolution of restrictive rules and responsibilities.
“What interests me especially about the course of liberalism is that, even at the beginning of the liberal project, it was largely a philosophical project that had the aim of transforming the world as a political project,” he says. Proto-liberal thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes treated human beings as “radically autonomous” creatures – but this conflicted with their 17th-century social context, “when people were deeply embedded in social forms and structures.”
The twist is that these “architects of the political order created structures that made us more and more into those kinds of human beings.” Bit by bit, he argues, we broke our organic social bonds, becoming increasingly self-serving selves held together by expanding political and economic structures. “The irony is that the creation of this autonomous individual requires a massive architecture. The mutual creation of both the state and the market establishes the conditions that allow for the emergence of this, supposedly sui generis, creature that exists in the state of nature.”
Deneen identifies a further irony: the political left and right actually worked together to build up this inhumanly large state and market architecture because they were trapped arguing over the “best means” of freeing the individual. The right “argued for the primacy of the marketplace as the best means of achieving this liberated ideal,” while the left supported “people that want to achieve liberation from family, tradition, religion and so forth.”
Deneen warns against the lip-service the right pays to social conservatism and the left pays to economic solidarity. “What has actually suffered under liberalism has been family, religion, community, the thing that the right says it prizes” – but so has the “moderated marketplace”, the supposed priority of the left. “Both sides have advanced a kind of liberal project at the expense of what is the, dare I say, more Catholic vision of the human person, which is less liberal in both the economic as well as the personal, social sphere.”
Deneen’s Catholicism does not mean he was always a sworn enemy of liberal thought. The son of an insurance broker, he grew up in Hartford County, Connecticut, where he developed a fondness for the writings of the great humourist Mark Twain, who spent his most productive years in the area. Later moving down to Rutgers University in New Jersey, Deneen studied with Wilson Carey McWilliams, “a spectacularly gifted teacher and thinker.”
From McWilliams, Deneen says he inherited an interest in the work of the French diplomat and political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville, whose writings revealed ways in which the United States’ “very strengths hid the inherent weaknesses of the American democratic order.” For the classically-minded Tocqueville, “the tendency of regimes is towards corruption” and this reality was gradually catching up with a modern political system designed to be “immortal”. Deneen describes this as his “Matrix moment,” when he could suddenly see the unstable architecture of America’s liberal political order.
This revelation was clearly a bitter pill to swallow. “As someone who was 12 years old when America celebrated its bicentennial, I was really caught up in the celebration of American constitutional democracy,” he says. “I actually learned how to write John Hancock’s signature, the first signer of the Declaration of Independence, I so much admired him. So, for me Tocqueville stood as a challenge to my admirable but naïve patriotism for the American political order.”
When teaching at the University of Notre Dame, Deneen begins his courses by discussing the late novelist David Foster Wallace’s parable about how the closest realities are often the most difficult to see. In Wallace’s words: “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the hell is water?’”
Deneen describes the story as a modern retelling of Plato’s Cave allegory, in which shackled prisoners mistake shadows cast on a cave wall for real objects and require philosophical reflection to liberate themselves from the illusion. “I agree with Plato that we can begin to see water, we can see the nature of our cave, if we explore the cave through the lens of other philosophers. This is why I think political philosophy is an essential discipline.”
Deneen, though, questions the capacity of liberal thought to look beyond its own prized illusions. “This is the deepest irony of liberalism: on the one hand our philosophy tells us that we’re self-making individuals, but you come to hold that belief because of philosophical beliefs you yourself never came into contact with; you simply absorbed and accepted them because it’s the water you swim in.”
Why Liberalism Failed concludes with a chapter on community at the grassroots. “Politics and human community must percolate from the bottom up, from experience and practice,” Deneen writes. This account overlaps with Rod Dreher’s localist “Benedict Option,” which Deneen has cited approvingly. It seems, however, that Deneen places a greater emphasis on mediating institutions such as universities. These lie in the broken middle between the capitalist state, which reduces them to a political tool, and the consumerist individual, who treats them as a means to personal ends.
“We’ve been operating on an assumption that statism and individualism are opposites but, in fact, they really work together,” he tells me. “They tend to destroy these middle institutions, and the fact that we don’t spend more time as a society both lamenting this and seeking ways to build them back up shows just how deeply the virus of liberalism has infected us.” Universities, for instance, are losing their ability to leave “your heart enlarged, your capacity to contain more increased”.
It might be said that the cancel culture and “Rhodes Must Fall” iconoclasm of today’s student activism is a sign of hardening hearts, a sign that we are making less room for humanity. Deneen is certainly anxious about this trend, as it bleeds into our wider political discourse and taints the Black Lives Matter movement, but he suggests this is the result of another heart-enlarging truth being neglected: Christianity.
“The original sin of America is slavery and it’s something for which we’ve never achieved a sufficient kind of atonement,” he says. “There have been times in American history where, by appealing to a Christian tradition, there were halting, imperfect efforts to atone for this great original sin. I think at the heart of this Christian effort to seek redress was the sense that a sin had been committed, that atonement needed to be achieved and forgiveness needed to be proffered.”
During the political convulsions of his day, Yeats urgently looked for the Second Coming of Christ but amidst the Spanish Flu and Irish Civil War could only see a disfigured Spiritus Mundi rising up. Deneen sees the same “anti-Christian” spirit of the world arise in the destruction of religious monuments during recent protests, but he pleads with people to take a longer view and not lose faith.
“What I fear is that this is, for the first time in American history, a secular effort to eradicate America’s original sin. I personally think that, not only is this insufficient to the task, but great harm will be committed in the effort to achieve a secular atonement without forgiveness. There will be no perfect atonement for the sin of slavery, just as there will be no perfect atonement for original sin until the Second Coming.”
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.