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Book Review: Why Liberalism Failed by Patrick Deneen

April 25th, 2018 | 8 min read

By Jake Meador

One of the smartest observations made about Rod Dreher’s book The Benedict Option came, unsurprisingly, from New York Times columnist Ross Douthat.

At an event in Manhattan, Douthat argued that Rod was right, even if he was wrong. It was possible, in other words, that Dreher overstated the imminence of the threat to orthodox Christians in the western world. I don’t think he did, personally, but a number of people do and they may well be right. The trouble is that this particular point was rather tangential to Dreher’s main argument, which is that the prevailing cultural forces of our day are deeply corrosive to Christian practice and formation, even if they never actually become overtly hostile on an institutional level. The question of whether or not a post-Obergefell America has room for Christian institutions may be a moot one if there are no well-formed Christians around to build and sustain those institutions.

Something similar is at work in the response to Patrick Deneen’s new book Why Liberalism Failed. I’m not sure if anyone has made this point yet, but there is a real sense in which Deneen’s book is a sequel to Dreher’s: Rod’s book documented the specific challenges to Christians posed by 21st century liberalism. Deneen’s book now has demonstrated the underlying instability of said liberalism. This is precisely the step the conversation needed to take after Rod’s book and I’m grateful to Deneen for pushing it there.1 If there was a problem, in hindsight, with the discussion around The Benedict Option it is that it focused too narrowly on an individual tree, the ongoing health of religious institutions and the question of religious liberty, and lost the forest, which is the broader breakdown of common life. By focusing less on religion and more on liberalism, Deneen’s book admirably corrects this error in the debate.

That said, Deneen’s critics are as many and occasionally even as hostile as Dreher’s. The problem, of course, is that word “liberalism.” What Deneen has in view is the overall social theory, now ascendant in the west, which believes these three things:

  • Individual people have an absolute right to personal freedom, which means the freedom to create their own identity or, in the disturbing if also clarifying words of Justice Kennedy, to “define their own concept of existence.”
  • The government’s role is to preserve a space in which individuals are able to do that work of self-creation and, at times, to directly facilitate that work, as in laws to protect the rights of LGBT individuals and by providing funds for gender-reassignment surgery for low-income LGBT people.
  • The primary space in which individuals do the work of self-creation is the marketplace, by which I mean the place where we provide a good or service in exchanges for financial compensation.

To be sure, there is a narrower political theory implicit in this social theory—and Deneen takes aim at it in his book. But to reduce his critique to a criticism of democracy or free markets or religious liberty is largely to miss the point.

In this book, Deneen’s aims are both more modest and more radical than these critics seem to think. On the one hand, his aims are modest: He’d like to see a localist resurgence in the American republic defined by a rebuilding of small societies that care for and concern themselves with the small, simple life of particular places. This vision is a much easier one to describe—and to realize!—than any sort of top-down constitutional reform or even simply a wide-ranging set of legislative reforms passed by the American version of what many hoped David Cameron would be in the UK before he turned out to be a regrettably conventional Tory. Yet viewed another way, those aims are actually far more radical than the sort of reform program that French (from the right) or Wolfe (from the left) seem to have in view in their reviews of his book.

For Deneen, the crisis of our day is that we have almost entirely lost the idea of the givenness of the world, “the great coherence,” in the recent words of Wendell Berry. Deneen’s book is an updated version of C. S. Lewis’s Abolition of Man. In that book, the Oxford don argued that what we were losing in late modernity was the idea that there is such a thing as Nature, that there is an intended use for the world and, because of this, there are ways of treating creation that are befitting and those which are not. When Berry speaks of the idea of “propriety,” this is what he has in mind.

Appeals to nature can be difficult to make, of course, because the idea is so contested and because, unlike Scripture, nature never speaks propositionally. But the contestability of nature’s witness does not negate the fact of its witness. If you read the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus seems to be under the impression that flowers are able to tell us not to be anxious. “Are you worried?” he asks. “Then go look at those flowers.” The world itself has a positive meaning, or, in more modern speak, it has definable “content,” which normal humans can understand through the use of reason.

If Deneen is right—and he is—then to focus our conversation about the crisis around narrow political questions actually undersells the severity of the threat facing us. The problem before us is not simply big government or big business, though both of those can be problems if we understand what they are (which we often do not). It is, rather, that the way in which we live is radically unnatural and that, historically speaking, you can only go against nature for so long before nature begins to bite back. There is a sense, then, in which climate change is a metaphor for Deneen’s entire project: Liberalism is the setting aside of natural limitations to facilitate the conspicuous consumption of nonrenewable resources in order to enrich a small elite for a short time.

Appealing to the good things won by liberalism, as Wolfe, French, and Zmirak all do as well, also misses the point: Deneen’s very thesis tacitly grants that liberalism has done good things. That is not what is at issue. The question is where the resources to sustain the good life and the good community actually come from. Deneen’s argument is that liberalism itself is generally unable to produce those resources. Eliot develops this point helpfully in his Idea of a Christian Society, liberalism is less a fixed destination, a philosophy that lays hold of specific social goods, and more a starting point, the assertion of expressive individualism, from which a great deal of unaimed energy is released.

In the early days, if the starting point was good, the theory works well enough because you haven’t wondered far from the origin point and you’ve released all this creative energy. But as that energy radiates outward, moving both further from itself and from its origin, things fall apart—the center cannot hold, in Yeats’s phrase. Thus to say “religious liberty is good” is beside the point; the question is whether liberalism provides a coherent argument within itself for the long-term protection of religious liberty. Deneen’s response as well as the testimony of our current historical moment is a resounding “no.”

What must the response be to such a state of disorder? Precisely the response Deneen counsels at the end: We need to return to a right understanding of the givenness of life, we need a reinvigorated fidelity to the communities we do not choose and to the life we are given.

To be sure, this implies certain political reforms—and some of them include reforms of the sort social conservatives allegedly want. But they are not limited to that nor are they summarized chiefly through those legislative reforms. The heart of Deneen’s post liberal social order is not Washington and its chief explanatory agent is not a legal document. The heart is the hearth of homes and its explanation is the life of small communities. To think otherwise is to fail utterly at understanding Deneen’s work.

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