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A self-defeating experiment?




News Weekly, September 8, 2018

WHY LIBERALISM FAILED: Politics and Culture

by Patrick J. Deneen

Yale University Press, Newhaven
Hardcover: 248 pages
Price: AUD$59.99

Reviewed by Bill James

When I was a boy, I used to think about how unfair it was that I had been born into a system of customs, rules and regulations which were imposed on me as soon as I appeared in the world, even though I had played no part in choosing them.

Some people never outgrow this puerile form of individualist liberalism.

As Patrick Deneen reminds us in this book, all that is best in liberalism emerges from, and is in a symbiotic relationship with, a Burkean appreciation of society’s organic and evolutionary complexity – in other words, with conservatism.

The origins of liberalism can be found in ancient and mediaeval Europe.

“Liberalism’s appeal lies in its continuities with the deepest commitments of the Western political tradition, particularly efforts to secure liberty and human dignity through the constraints of tyranny, arbitrary rule, and oppression.”

It became overt and found identity, however, through the Civil War and Glorious Revolution of middle and late 17th-century England, and in the American and French Revolutions of the late 18th century.

Today, according to Deneen, with the demise of fascism and communism, liberalism is the last dominant ideology left standing.

This is scarcely news.

After all, it is now a quarter of a century since Francis Fukuyama informed us that history had ended, leaving liberal democracy as the only game in town.

In America (which is Deneen’s focus) and other Western countries, contemporary liberalism takes two forms, which are reminiscent of – though not directly analogous to – Isaiah Berlin’s famous Two Concepts of Liberty. They could be referred to as libertarian liberalism and progressive liberalism.

Orthodox liberalism, which is associated with John Stuart Mill, stands for a limited form of government with a small number of laws which are strictly enforced. This facilitates the greatest possible personal liberty commensurate with non-interference with the freedom of one’s fellow citizens.

In particular, it promises the maximisation of material prosperity through the liberation of enterprise, competition, market forces and self-interest. Confusingly, it is often referred to nowadays as neo-liberalism.

The historically younger progressive liberalism is more concerned with fighting inequality – especially in fields such as education, housing, health and identity politics – and promoting the expansion of legislation, bureaucracy and progressive taxation to create a welfare state.

The main sphere in which progressives support negative (that is, libertarian) liberalism is that of sexuality.

Deneen claims that these two liberalisms are in fact two sides of the one coin: “Liberalism advances most effectively through classical and progressive liberalisms, the economic liberalism of Locke and the lifestyle liberalism of Mill, even while the two claim to be locked in battle.”

He also argues that modern liberalism is based on a distortion of an earlier concept of freedom, which emphasised the liberation of individuals from their passions as a path to the attainment of virtue.

His definition of it runs as follows: “Liberty is the learned capacity to govern oneself using the higher faculties of reason and spirit through the cultivation of virtue.”

The current view of freedom as the right to do as one likes confuses (to employ a contrast which was once commonplace, but now sounds impossibly quaint) liberty with licence.

Deneen also maintains that, despite their apparent differences, both current forms of liberalism are ultimately unviable, for two reasons.

First, each overemphasises the role of the central government: liberals treat it as the guarantor of freedom, and progressives as the guarantor of equality and the pursuit of identity. This has resulted in an immense increase in the power of the state in liberal countries over the last two centuries.

“The ‘limited’ government of liberalism today would provoke jealousy and amazement from tyrants of old, who could only dream of such extensive capacities for surveillance and control of movement, finances, and even deeds and thoughts. The liberties that liberalism was brought into being to protect – individual rights of conscience, religion, association, speech, and self-governance – are extensively compromised by the expansion of government activity into every area of life.”

The corollary to this bloating of the state has been the gradual disappearance of voluntary institutions. These include churches, clubs, associations, sports teams, lodges, orders, charities, interest and hobby groups, trade unions and welfare organisations, along with local political societies and meetings.

For many today, the closest they have ever come to grassroots political involvement is watching the city hall debates which commonly take place on The Simpsons.

Such bodies and practices not only gave citizens a feeling of agency and community, but provided an intermediary connection to bridge the growing gulf between the individual and the government with its burgeoning bureaucracy in the distant capital city.

In theory this centralised administration represents each of us, but in practice it has become ever more remote, detached and impenetrable.

Second, both forms of liberalism treat society as an aggregation of individuals, and government as the means of each individual’s achieving his or her own unique fulfillment.

In the case of classic liberalism, this is predominantly through material enrichment and the acquisition of consumer goods. For progressives, it consists of the manifestation of one’s innate identity, which is understood usually, though not uniquely, as a sexual persona.

Neither goal is capable of providing genuine personhood or humanity, which can only be achieved communally by conformity to a society’s norms as expressed in its culture, customs and religion.

Both forms of liberalism ignore or despise, on the ostensible principle of individual liberation, anything that smacks of tradition.

Liberalism, from sources as diverse as Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and Kant, propagated the myth of an imaginary state of nature in which human beings were laws unto themselves.

“It conceived humans as rights-bearing individuals who could fashion and pursue for themselves their own version of the good life … non-relational creatures, separate and autonomous.”

In short, it formulated a false anthropology.

The truth is that any meaning to our lives is the product of innumerable historical influences that preceded us. Like it or not, we are heirs to a complex and interrelated web of privileges and responsibilities, so it is obscurantist to pretend that each of us is born a tabula rasa on which we can inscribe anything we like.

Deneen’s foci include liberalism’s impact on the economy and education.

The global economy has not only become a mechanism of consumerism, homogenisation and depersonalisation, which has “deracinated humans” and destroyed regional cultures, but it has also destroyed truly liberal education: that is, the study of the West’s heritage in the humanities. Instead of the Classics, students are directed to study either “realistic” subjects such as business, accounting and marketing, or pseudo-subjects, such as Women’s Studies and Postcolonial Studies, which cater to the obsession with identity.

Deneen is also ready to tackle rich but forbiddingly slippery, nebulous and multi-faceted concepts such as Nature, and displays a strong sympathy for environmentalism.

Liberalism and democracy tend to be paired as almost one word, “liberaldemocracy”, but Deneen discusses the emerging phenomenon of liberal anti-democrats – the Anywheres (or Nowheres) who, as a result of Brexit and Donald Trump’s election by the Somewheres, are eager to somehow henceforth deny the poll to hoi polloi.

So, where do we go from here? Deneen has some suggestions.

For a start, he warns against any dreams of imposing (assuming it to be practicable) a new credo, or Weltanshauung, as liberalism’s successor.

“A more humane politics must avoid the temptation to replace one ideology with another. Politics and human community must percolate from the bottom up, from experience and practice.”

He then goes on to enumerate some possible examples, concluding: “What we need today are practices fostered in local settings, focused on the creation of new and viable cultures, economics grounded in virtuosity within households, and the creation of civic polis life … The greatest proof of human freedom today lies in our ability to imagine, and build, liberty after liberalism.”

Readers will differ as to both the validity of Deneen’s critique and, assuming he is right, the possibility of any alternative.

No reader will put his book down, however, without having been momentarily snatched from the liberal bubble that we all inhabit, and forced dispassionately to examine its hegemonic credentials from the outside.

[PS While was I reading this book, I was also reading Stephen Pinker’s just-published Enlightenment Now: The Case For Reason, Science, Humanism And Progress. The experience of comparing two such contrasting worldviews, and assessing their merits and demerits, was bracing, to say the least, and I recommend it.]

To order a copy of Why Liberalism Failed at the Footprint Books website with a 15 per cent discount, click here. Use discount voucher code BCLUB18 at the checkout to apply the discount.


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