It’s not every day that a book garners glowing blurbs from both Rod Dreher of The American Conservative (“clarifying”) and the socialist scholar Cornel West (“courageous”), but then these aren’t ordinary times. Patrick J. Deneen’s “Why Liberalism Failed” speaks to a profound discontent with the political establishment. During the 2016 election, “They’re all the same” was a line heard from Americans disgusted with both parties. Judging from this book, Deneen would agree.
Liberalism, as he defines it, encompasses the orthodoxy of political elites, whether they lean to the left or the right. It was conceived some 500 years ago and was the founding creed of the United States. It prescribes autonomy for individuals to “fashion and pursue for themselves their own version of the good life.” It advises government to get out of the way in the realm of markets (a Republican priority) and personal morality (a Democratic one). It has been an unmitigated disaster.
That, at least, is Deneen’s argument. “Why Liberalism Failed” is a book that reads like an attempt to enunciate a primal scream, a deeply exasperating volume that nevertheless articulates something important in this age of disillusionment. (David Brooks and Ross Douthat have both written Op-Ed columns about the book for The Times.) Deneen, a professor of political science at Notre Dame, may not admire President Trump, but he understands his appeal.
“Today’s widespread yearning for a strong leader, one with the will to take back popular control over liberalism’s forms of bureaucratized government and globalized economy, comes after decades of liberal dismantling of cultural norms and political habits essential to self-governance,” Deneen writes. His critique in this slender volume is impressively capacious. Ruthless economic liberalization has left many people materially insecure; relentless cultural liberalization has left them unmoored. Communal ties are discouraged in order to encourage a mobile force of workers. Freedom becomes something for an increasingly powerful government to grant or withhold.
Mere tinkering won’t alleviate the deep rot in the liberal project, Deneen insists. He says we need to envision a future after liberalism, where local, preferably religious communities tend to the land and look after their own. These groups would cultivate “cultures of community, care, self-sacrifice and small-scale democracy.”
Readers of all political stripes can probably find something in this book that rings true, even if it’s followed by the rude awakening of a record scratch. His thoughts on the environment sound like they came out of a Greenpeace brochure — “Short-term exploitation of the earth’s bounty,” he writes, “forces our children to deal with shortages of such resources as topsoil and potable water” — while his musings on women, when he deigns to mention women, sound like they came out of an especially cranky episode of “The 700 Club.”
“The main practical achievement of this liberation of women has been to move many of them into the work force of market capitalism,” he writes, “a highly dubious form of liberation.” You don’t have to be a raging neoliberal to find this a highly dubious form of generalization. “Children are increasingly viewed as a limitation upon individual freedom, which contributes to liberalism’s commitment to abortion on demand, while overall birthrates decline across the developed world.”
There’s so much moral panic packed into this sentence it’s hard to know where to begin, though the blithe phrasing of “abortion on demand” reflects the old and spiteful stereotype of the so-called modern woman as a dissolute, selfish pleasure-seeker. “Today we consider the paramount sign of the liberation of women to be their growing emancipation from their biology,” Deneen writes. We do? How many women has he talked to about what they want?
Deneen approvingly cites the radical feminist Nancy Fraser to bolster his assertions about women in the work force, yet nowhere does he sufficiently address how gendered injustices — what Fraser calls “domestic violence, sexual assault and reproductive oppression” — might fare in his own faith-based, localist program. Despite his buttoned-up solemnity Deneen occasionally plays peekaboo with his sources, especially the left-wing ones, shining the klieg lights on certain parts of their arguments while eliding others that might complicate his own.
In an otherwise illuminating section on the development of capitalism, Deneen refers to the great economic historian Karl Polanyi, who showed how the state had to take a strong hand in the creation of ostensibly free markets: “As Polanyi pithily says of this transformation, ‘Laissez-faire was planned.’” But Polanyi drew different conclusions from his own observations. An ardent social democrat who fled his beloved Red Vienna when the fascists took over, Polanyi went into exile four times, eventually landing in Canada. This cosmopolitan intellectual, born into a Hungarian-Jewish family, would most likely have been highly suspicious of Deneen’s extreme disdain for what he calls “lives of deracinated vagabondage” and his sentimentalization of communal norms enforced by “people of good will.”
Deneen says that the only proper response to liberalism is “to transform the household into a small economy.” Home may be where the heart is, but it can also be the site for homegrown prejudice, petty grievances and a vicious cruelty. Deneen is so determined to depict liberalism as a wholly bankrupt ideology that he gives exceedingly short shrift to what might have made it appealing — and therefore powerful — in the first place. With all its abiding flaws, liberalism offered a way out for those who didn’t conform to the demands of the clan.
Besides, nobody is truly stopping Deneen from doing what he prescribes: finding a community of like-minded folk, taking to the land, growing his own food, pulling his children out of public school. His problem is that he apparently wants everyone to do these things — which suggests he may have more in common with his caricature of a bullying liberal than he cares to admit.
Or perhaps it just goes to show that everyone has his blind spots — even erudite political philosophers keen to denounce the blind spots of others. Deneen and his fellow localists are cast as virtuous souls who would necessarily make discerning, merciful and respectful yeoman farmers once the revolution comes. Yet this generous forbearance doesn’t seem to extend to liberals — or to use his awkward slur, “liberalocrats” — who get tarred in this book as a bunch of condescending, self-satisfied chumps. Hypocrites, every one: They’re all the same.
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