Why Liberalism Failed by Patrick Deneen

I found this a very exciting book. It provides nothing less than an interpretation and critique of modernity, and the account it gives commands assent in many respects. I found the book helpful because it helped me bring so much together: ideas of which I’ve had an intuition for some time, half thought-out, are set forth here, fully developed and placed in a broad historical context. In what follows, I’m not going to review the book so much as try to set out the logic of some of its main ideas in my own words, offering reflections of my own along the way (the TL;DR review: superb, thought-provoking, jargon-free and short, this is a must-read).

The title is no doubt intended to provoke, and many will assume this to be a reactionary tome, one that attacks left-wing politics, perhaps even aiming at the abolition of democracy. Though the author is clearly no left-wing radical, this is not the point: ‘liberalism’ here is understood in reference to the Latin liber – i.e., we’re focused here on a particular conception of freedom, that of liberating people from anything that might restrain them from fulfilling their desires. As Deneen shows, this conception has gradually attained a position of extraordinary dominance, such that it is generally assumed by those on both the right and the left: both sides of the political spectrum come in for criticism here. More than this, we find this conception of freedom driving modern science, as well as our economic, political and cultural life (or what’s left of them).

The notion of freedom as simply a liberation from restraint is to be distinguished from a different way of thinking about things that was decisively influential in antiquity and the middle ages. This older approach considered ethical matters in a broader context, seeking a stable basis from which the best overall life could be lived. Such an approach led naturally to a recognition of the need to discipline and direct natural desires as part of a natural order of things; it was thought that if we let our desires get out of hand, we could become enslaved to them, harming ourselves in the process. So, for example, many of us have adopted reasonably moderate habits with regard to our desire for food and drink; if we fail in this, obesity and/or ill-health are likely to result (an alcoholic is an example of someone enslaved to his appetites). Real freedom, from this older standpoint, is to be found in the attainment of character, in habits that lead of their nature to a good overall life (e.g., that will lead a person in possession of an immense wine cellar not to drink himself to death, but rather to enjoy his wine moderately in the course of a life which will no doubt be enriched by many other activities).

Deneen’s argument is that the modern conception of freedom, of liberating ourselves from external restraints, has not only become overwhelmingly dominant, but can now be said to have failed on its own terms. More specifically, he aims to show that as a consequence of the overwhelming success of this ‘liberalism,’ we not only find ourselves without much of the freedom that was promised, but we also find ourselves faced with new and imposing restraints on our freedom.

To give a better idea of what I think is at issue here, and to give an example of how this ‘liberalism’ has failed, I’m going to reflect a little on modern science and technology. A century ago, science was regarded as providing an unambiguous good: mastery over the natural world. This mastery included improved understanding, but was much more a practical matter, making life more comfortable, safer and longer. The new mastery over nature conquered distances and diseases, and even other civilisations (thus the rhyme that summed up a decisive advantage enjoyed by imperial armies: “Whatever happens/We have got/The Gatling gun/And they have not”). A century later, this unambiguous optimism has disappeared. The change began in the First World War, in which Europeans had to fight enemies who also had Gatling guns (i.e., machine guns), and the Second World War, culminating with the atom bomb, was even worse. Of course, it was precisely the new mastery over nature that made these two wars so terribly destructive. There followed the nuclear standoff of the Cold War, in which the conquest of distance meant that the enemy’s nuclear missiles could arrive very swiftly indeed from the other side of the world. As we emerged from the Cold War, environmental problems loomed ever larger, and some genuinely apocalyptic scenarios are now the subject of repeated expert warnings. In the meantime, we now read that antibiotics are proving less effective, and an antibiotic-resistant strain of some common malady – or a new superbug of some sort – is a real possibility. All these events have forced a retreat from that long-ago optimism: certainly science provides better understanding, but the mastery of the natural world that it provides has come to seem an ambiguous good indeed. Nothing could now be less surprising than an event causing death on the grand scale, and it is our mastery of nature through science that makes such an event possible. (Deneen sums the matter up succinctly: “among the greatest challenges facing humanity is the ability to survive progress.”)

All this, I hope, gives an idea of what it means to say that liberalism has failed. The sort of mastery aimed at by science, the idea of freeing ourselves from the limits of the natural world: these ideas now seem to have the capacity to produce real harm, and there is good reason to believe that our striving for mastery will culminate in a devastating reminder of our limits, in an utter helplessness. Deneen is able to tie the problem back to the very beginning of the modern scientific project: “Francis Bacon… compared nature to a prisoner who, under torture, might be compelled to reveal her long-withheld secrets.” The image points to a brutal, forceful compulsion, a relationship in which we do not try to live in accordance with nature, and do not seek any kind of compromise, but rather in which we seek her utter subjugation to our will. The whole project was conceived in this manner from the beginning – that is, as an assault on nature. Centuries after Bacon, we have succeeded in torturing out many secrets, but we find ourselves reminded ever more forcefully that we are part of nature, and nature is part of us: we should be careful about how exactly we relate to her, for if we get this wrong, it will hurt us. Everyone who has worried about the environment already has a basic grasp of this.

But does any of this really have anything to do with an idea of freedom? After all, science just provides improved understanding; the use we make of it is another problem entirely. But it is just here that the idea of freedom as a liberation from limits on our desires becomes relevant, for what the environmental consciousness of our time brings to light is precisely that we need to put a limit on our desires: the earth has finite resources, and so as our power to exploit them increases, so too does must our consumption find a limit. If our era has decided on a liberation from limit as one of its most fundamental principles, then we have a problem: our idea of freedom has run into its consequences, and these suggest the need for a quite different conception of freedom. We shall see that something similar is at work in other domains.

To get a better idea of what is at work in this notion of freedom, let us turn to Thomas Hobbes, who looms large over Deneen’s account of ‘liberalism.’ Before reading Deneen, I had not been cognizant of the radical break with the past that Hobbes’ theoretical conception of man in a state of nature represents, nor the immense influence it would wield over subsequent thought. In this putative natural state, the individual is imagined as an isolated entity, without commitments or natural attachments like a culture, a particular place, or the family. From this initial state, people proceed to choose various forms of commitment from which they hope to derive some benefit – e.g., we choose to accept the authority of the state because it provides the security and stability within which we can pursue good beyond mere survival. This represents a break with the sort of thinking that dominated antiquity and the middle ages, according to which people’s most fundamental attachments to one another were through nature, not choice. Thus Aristotle declared man to be a political animal; the basis of the city in Plato’s Republic is that people are not by nature self-sufficient, but need one another: the focus is on human nature, not on choice. Later Christian thinkers followed the Hellenic lead.

I have to admit that I have an awful lot of sympathy for critiques of Hobbes’ view. Obviously it is false to suggest that we begin political life as isolated individuals who actively choose our commitments. On the contrary, we begin as children, and children have parents, so that we begin as part of a family. By the time we are old enough to think about political life or to make substantial choices about the way we are going to live, we have been through a prolonged period of dependence on others, in which we have been without any choice at all about a great many things – and this is true even for orphans. The result of this is that we also begin mature political life with a culture (i.e., whatever is communicated to us by those we encounter as we grow up). Accordingly, there is an immensely important role played by things that are not chosen, by things that we acquire passively and in a non-rational way. I consider Plato and Aristotle to be greater political philosophers than Hobbes partly because they begin from a recognition of realities such as these while he does not. Deneen gets to the heart of all this by quoting Bertrand de Jouvenel: social contractarianism was conceived by “childless men who must have forgotten their own childhood.”

To say all this is nothing new. What is much more interesting is how Deneen can show what a tremendous – and often malignant – influence Hobbes’ ideas have had on subsequent political life. I want to bring out the logic behind this as best I can, so let us reflect a little farther on Hobbes. I have just characterised Plato and Aristotle as more realistic than Hobbes, but Hobbes would believe that he is the truly realistic one, for he takes as a most fundamental fact the reality that while people often pay lip service to lofty ideals, in fact they are moved by the basest impulses, and are deeply self-interested creatures. Thus the Hobbesian individual chooses to accept the authority of the state, but does so out of self-interest, and never gives up on this focus on self-interest (or on the basest impulses). Laws are compared by Hobbes to hedges of the sort you can still see on the side of country roads around England, “not to stop travelers, but to keep them in the way.” That is, they are external constraints, without which human nature would drive people to behave in all sorts of chaotic and destructive ways; Hobbes’ project is not to reform that nature, but rather to provide something capable of restraining it to some degree: fear, provided by the overwhelming power of the state.

This sketch should be enough to give an idea of the logic behind some of Deneen’s central claims. Our consideration of Hobbes has left us with (1) individuals who make choices from their basest impulses in a self-interested manner, and (2) a state with overwhelming power, which is necessary to restrain those individuals from many of the choices they would otherwise tend to make. Intermediate loyalties, of the sort people often have to families, guilds, churches, a particular place, and so on – i.e., into predefined forms of life that would otherwise limit and thus reform an otherwise anarchic human nature – are of decidedly lesser importance (Deneen notes how the well-known cover of Leviathan shows only a giant (the state) made up of anonymous individuals – i.e., intermediate commitments are not represented). Deneen does not consider this view of things to be an eternal verity; rather, as it has become ever more widely accepted it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It naturally affects behaviour and corrodes the authority of all institutions other than the state. What we increasingly end up with is isolated individuals, deprived of the supports they once enjoyed through intermediate institutions like the family, and increasingly powerless in the face of the vast power of the state.

We can now begin to consider examples of the failure of ‘liberalism’ other than science & the environment. In Deneen’s view, the state of affairs brought about by this self-fulfilling Hobbesian prophecy explains the dire state of our political life today, in which individuals are liberated as never before, and yet feel alienated from their governments: “growing numbers of citizens regard the government as an entity separate from their own will and control, not their creature and creation as promised by liberal philosophy… 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. Yet this expansion continues…” This expansion of government is the Leviathan; it must expand to react to the anti-social tendencies of a populace that increasingly understands itself as Hobbesian individuals, who increasingly do not have characters formed by those institutions that once played a role between individual and state, but which now wither away to an ever-increasing degree.

A similar phenomenon is to be found in our free markets, and of course it also extends to various supra-national institutions, agents and creations of globalisation. I am not going to review these in detail here, although it does seem to me that the European Union provides an excellent example: its powers have been expanded at the expense of democratic national governments on the basis of narrow referendum victories in those nations, or even (in the cases of Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands and France) in the face of defeats. In the Brexit referendum, the most frequent (and perhaps the strongest) arguments on the Remain side took the form of necessity – i.e., that Britain could not escape from the EU without catastrophic economic consequences (these have yet to appear, but I am hardly alone in remaining worried about them). Many believe that the EU would like to see Britain fail after it leaves, so that other member states will be too afraid to take the same path: here again is the Leviathan, restraining the impulses of its citizens through fear.

One of the book’s greatest strengths is its ability to give deep explanations of various malaises of our time – that is, to present many well-known problems of our recent history in the context of, and as the logical result of, a much wider historical development, one going back at least four centuries. Thus Deneen can show how ballooning national debts are a natural product of the narrow conception of time that follows from liberalism; so too can he show how the eclipse of (genuinely) liberal education by technical and practical studies is part of this development (I’m not going to try to explain those here). There is also a deeper view of political life here, one critical of both the left and the right as we know them today, for both are influenced by – and yet (interestingly) also critical of – ‘liberalism.’ The left is critical of the adverse effects that free markets can have on the poor, while it promotes maximum liberation for individuals from restrictive social norms; the right is critical of the effects that such a liberation from social norms can have on the poor, while it promotes free markets (if you don’t think a liberation from social norms can harm the poor, may I recommend Life at the Bottom by Theodore Dalrymple? I will be blogging about him in the next week or two). What is remarkable is that both sides have enjoyed success insofar as they accord with ‘liberalism’ – i.e., with the notion of freedom as a liberation from a restraint on our desires – and both sides have failed insofar as they have sought to withstand this same ‘liberalism.’ In fact, while writing this post, I happened across a blog post on the last few decades of British politics which pointed to the respective victories of left and right: “it was as though a deal had been struck; you can have diversity, minority rights and discrimination laws if we can have privatisation, deregulation and tax cuts.”

Deneen does not quite say as much, but it strikes me that the intractability of our environmental problems is to be seen in the same way as this mutual failure of the political left and right: what environmentalism is bringing into focus is a need to make a limit to our consumption part of our way of life, but this conflicts with the deepest commitment we have concerning how people ought to live. That is, the idea that we ought to be free to choose how to live, that there ought to be no limits to our desires aside from the laws of the state – these are the most basic commitments of ‘liberalism,’ and they have come to seem self-evident truths to most people. The state can pass coercive laws all it likes to try to force people to live in an environmentally sound manner, but quite apart from the resentment and possible backlash these might provoke if coercion is taken too far, such measures are unlikely to succeed on their own. A successful environmental movement surely requires that we make limits on consumption (and thus on our desires) part of our choices: one chooses to turn off the light in an empty room; one chooses not only to ride a bike or take public transport instead of driving a car, but also to support urban landscapes that are conducive to such things; one chooses to compost and recycle, and to try to avoid producing too much waste; one chooses to support laws necessary to a sustainable environment; etc. Environmental problems are hard to solve not because they pose an insuperable technical problem for scientists, but because the solution to them conflicts with ‘liberalism,’ and as the successes and failures of the left and the right in politics suggest, ‘liberalism’ is so deeply fixed in our understanding of how to live that it carries all before it.

One other insight into recent history is particularly worthy of mention: Deneen can link his understanding of ‘liberalism’ in a particularly compelling way to the major totalitarian movements of the 20th century. I happen to have read a fair bit on this particular matter – might I suggest my post on the great Sebastian Haffner, who writes with particular insight on Hitler and Nazism? – but still I felt I was learning something here, discovering for the first time the full significance of points I had encountered before. It should be enough to quote Deneen here: “an earlier generation of philosophers and sociologists noted the psychological condition that led increasingly dislocated and disassociated selves to derive their basic identity from the state. These analyses – in landmark works such as Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, Erich Fromm’s Escape from Freedom, and Robert Nisbet’s The Quest for Community – recognised, from various perspectives and disciplines, that a signal feature of modern totalitarianism was that it arose and came to power through the discontents of people’s isolation and loneliness. A population seeking to fill the void left by the weakening of more local memberships and associations was susceptible to a fanatical willingness to identify completely with a distant and abstract state.” This passage was a real moment of insight for me. It is, I hope, clear enough how this connects to what I said above about Hobbes and the gradual withering of institutions other than the state.

It would be wrong to fault Deneen for not stressing the positive achievements of liberalism. He is plainly aware of these, but his book is a critique, and no doubt one of the ways he was able to keep it so short was by maintaining a strict focus on his purpose. Nevertheless, it is important to remind ourselves of what is good in ‘liberalism,’ for it shows us just how uncomfortable the ground is to which Deneen has brought us.

It seems to me that there is no good that is characteristic of our own times that can be separated from the peculiar conception of freedom I set out at the start. We tend to look down on all previous ages because none of them could realise anything like the rights and opportunities that we can. We are not entirely wrong to do this, and yet all of these new rights and opportunities are a result of ‘liberalism.’ Consider: quite apart from the matter of material discomforts, few of us would want to live in the middle ages. Imagine being born the son of a blacksmith: the circumstances of your birth would be understood to determine your future to a considerable degree. You would probably be expected to follow in your father’s footsteps and become a blacksmith; if you proved somehow unsuited to that, you could no doubt pursue some other menial occupation, but you could never become a member of government or a diplomat, and marriage or friendship outside of your class would be quite out of the question. The idea that all people can pursue any career they wish, or that anyone can become president – these are surely consequences of conceiving of individuals in the abstract Hobbesian manner, without the natural attachments that come through accidents of birth and upbringing. Still more is this true in the case of women, who once would have had but one path open to them as a result of their situation as determined by nature, the path of marriage and motherhood (if they did not become nuns). I am inclined to think something similar is true of slavery – i.e., that ‘liberalism’ plays a significant role in explaining why our own era had successful anti-slavery movements while antiquity did not. It is clear that there were people arguing against slavery in ancient Greece, for Aristotle attempts to answer them. But note the sort of argument he uses: there are people who by nature are slaves. This sort of argument is on a shakier footing once we have accepted Hobbes’ beginning point, for his state of nature emphasises how people are fundamentally the same, moved by the same basic drives (in the case of slavery, I think Christianity is also part of the story).

Thus it seems to me that Deneen leaves us in a very difficult position: I think his criticisms of ‘liberalism’ are fundamentally sound, and yet it should be clear that we want to be very careful indeed about how we move away from it. It might not be enough simply to say that we want to maintain the new rights and opportunities, the fuller realisation of human dignity, that liberalism has brought about. After all, our behaviour is deeply influenced by our theoretical commitments – this is a lesson of the connection between Hobbes and aspects of our current situation – and it might well turn out to be the case that if we simply go back to an older view of humanity, one that does acknowledge the reality that we are partly formed by our particular natures and circumstances, that political life might “snap back,” so to speak, to an earlier state of affairs to some degree, one in which many of our current freedoms have disappeared. That is, we might find that our revised principles drive us once again towards the notion that women should stay in the home, or something similarly reactionary. This seems to me all the more possible in light of the fact that, as the problems inherent in ‘liberalism’ impose themselves on everyday life, the possibility of a reaction looms into view, and reactions often go too far.

No doubt we can already see the outlines of what we need next. I focused so much on the matter of the environment above because it seems to me that in this one case we can see the appearance, even among the most progressive people, of a widespread recognition of a need for more than mere liberation from restraint, but of a need for virtue, for a formation of character that limits the desires from within. That is, environmentalists can see clearly that we need to be less free as ‘liberalism’ conceives of freedom. If environmentalists are starting to see this, it’s not so clear to me that the immediate facts of the case will lead people to a similar understanding in other areas. But the first thing to do is to recognise we have a very deep-seated problem, and Deneen’s book certainly does that.


Author: Babbington

Citizen of the English-speaking world, resident of the German. Refugee from academia, writing a blog because, well, "in my heart there was a kind of fighting/That would not let me sleep."

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