Distinguishing Before Denouncing: A Review of “Why Liberalism Failed”


Why Liberalism Failed. By Patrick Deneen.

(New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2018. Pp. xix, 225. ISBN 978-0-300-22344-6).

Liberalism has failed. Or so confidently declares Patrick Deneen in his obviously named Why Liberalism Failed. Deneen offers one of the more useful and concise attacks on the often vaporously defined liberalism that has, according to Deneen, plagued modern societies for the last several hundred years. Deneen’s proof of liberalism’s failure is not that it failed to change society, but that liberal societies became exactly what they were supposed to be. The liberal state increasingly worked towards removing cultural and social institutions responsible for governing society’s consumer and sexual appetites.  Few orthodox Christians dispute that these are woeful problems. And Deneen deserves praise for identifying the ills that plague modern society. The book’s weaknesses are anachronism, and imprecise and lethargic taxonomy.

Deneen informs the reader that liberalism was launched to foster greater equity, defend a pluralist tapestry of different cultures and beliefs, and to expand liberty. The author indicts liberalism for subsequently creating inequality, enforcing uniformity and homogeneity, undermining freedom, and fostering material and spiritual degradation. He focuses on economics, education, as well as science and technology, as chief societal facets which hallmark liberalism’s failures. The initial chapter explains the nefarious origins of liberalism. Much of the blame for liberalism’s faults is placed at the feet of John Locke, although Thomas Hobbes is brought in for a costumery drubbing as well. We are soon whisked to the French Revolution, leaving this particular reviewer—a historian by training—wondering: what happened to the Eighteenth Century? The Bourbon and Pombaline reforms in Iberia–liberal in their aims to perfect society, appear nowhere. Neither does the reformist anticlericalism of Hapsburg empress Maria Theresa or her son Joseph II. Rousseau, it should be noted, left Calvinist Geneva because it was backward and medieval and made his home in France during the Ancien Regime because it was more secular. Liberalism, it seems, influenced most of Europe, including regimes that latter day anti-liberals might identify as conservative or even integralist.

Skipping over the eighteenth (as well as much of the nineteenth) century presents a historical difficulty, but surely it helps establish the narrative Deneen wishes to create. His claim that liberalism’s wish to liberate the individual from place, tradition, and culture is found in what the author terms classical and progressive liberalism. This liberal ambition motivated “thinkers ranging from John Locke to John Dewey, from Francis Bacon to Francis Bellamy, from Adam Smith to Richard Rorty.” Liberalism, in this reading seems be coterminous with the English political and religious tradition. (Interestingly, he names Milton with Augustine, Aquinas, Dante, and Thomas as articulators of a Biblical and Christian pre-liberal tradition) Likewise, he ignores, with the exception of Smith, the great thinkers of the eighteenth Century. Surely, Voltaire or Montesquieu must be considered liberals. After all, Voltaire proved an effective slanderer of the Roman Catholic Church and Montesquieu argued against absolutism and universal monarchy. Neither appear anywhere in the work.

The work is, to Deneen’s credit, accessible to the layperson and scholar, and there is much to defend in the work especially regarding the destructive habits in modern western—and it is unclear if he means Anglo-American—society. A pronounced anti-culture built in the name of liberalism appears self-evident. This anti-culture rest on the enmasse conquest of nature by human societies; a new experience of time as a present with no past facing a foreign unknown future; and a socio-political order that renders place largely meaningless.

The dismissal of humanity’s relationship to place is just one facet of a wider phenomenon. Deneen sees liberal societies plagued by a dismissal of natural human relations and the broader subordination of the natural order (and human life specifically) to technology. His cultural commentary in his chapter entitled “Technology and the Loss of Liberty” is not only relevant and timely. It is undoubtedly the most important part of the book. He seamlessly weaves modern film and television into a powerful lament and warning about unlimited human submission to technology for the sake of health, security and—more recently and more ominously—entertainment. Deneen takes seriously historic and contemporary concerns about artificial intelligence and robotics. Concerns about what the author terms “android humanity” are perhaps his most prescient. Automation, digitization, and the worldwide decreased need for skilled workers present a unique challenge to not just the West, but also to humanity in general. Nor are these changes merely external pressures to an unconditioned and idealized human vocational existence. Technology, he argues, seems to change humans ontologically: wants and desires, formerly conditioned by mediating institutions like the church and the family, now are driven by an almost omnipresent technological apparatus exemplified by telemedia, smartphones, and a host of other advancements what would have seemed fanciful even a generation previously.

The conversation on technology quickly moves to the US Constitution. Deneen displays a narrowness and naïve commitment to the philosophy of Leo Strauss when he declares the Constitution to be a vehicle for the actualization of liberalism. Deneen sees the Constitution as the embodiment of a set of modern principles that sought to overturn ancient teaching and shape a distinctly different modern mind. Nothing in the Constitution does anything of the sort, and it is precisely the non-revolutionary nature of the creation of American republic that made it so successful. Put simply, the American Revolution was a rebellion of North American Englishmen against imperial control from London. Their solution was to bring the imperial government to North America, which they did through the American Revolution and Constitutional Convention between 1775 and 1789. American liberalism as Deneen construes it waited almost a century to materialize. And when it did to grew not out of the American constitutional order but instead out of romanticism and Hegelian nationalism.

Deneen mentions, almost off-handedly, that “a kind of Hegelian or Darwinian narrative seems to dominate our worldview.” It is in those movements, rather than in liberalism broadly construed, that many of the ills of modern society may be found. Romanticism and modern nationalism grew out of the European Enlightenment, which was by no means a liberal movement. After all, Napoleonic France fought that paragon of liberalism, the Protestant United Kingdom. The enlightenment and liberalism were separated by the latter’s reliance on idealization of the political and social order. Liberalism might not preserve the human order by the same formulation as pre-liberal states, but liberalism still preserved humanity and place. It was Enlightenment thinkers that rejected polities that Deneen implicates as liberal and pre-liberal. Rousseau (again) fled Calvinist Geneva, which he deemed backward—dare we say medieval?—for what the Swiss thinker believed was the more progressive and—liberal?—society of absolutist Roman Catholic France, a society that warred ideologically and physically against intrinsically Lockean and “liberal” Hanoverian Britain, and the Netherlands. Enlightenment infused Romanticism proved eventually to be an enemy of liberalism. Liberalism “failed” before, after the First World War, and integralist movements such as that in Falangist and Fascist Italy, to say nothing of Nazi Germany, replaced liberal regimes. A crisis of liberalism in the interwar period very quickly brought about a crisis of integralism. In many cases Marxism –an ideology whose taxonomy we will not explore too deeply, but which we will posit is not liberal—replaced both.

A great chronological gap weakens Deneen’s argument. “Liberal” states in the 19th century were not by their very natures beholden to Romanticism or Hegel, nor were they even “liberal” in any sense of the word. The Kingdom of Italy, a liberal bogeyman if ever there was for modern European antiliberals, did not overturn the social or political order to dislodge humanity from tradition, culture, place, or even sacramental life. The Albertine Statute established Roman Catholicism, limited press freedoms, retained laws prosecuting blasphemy, gave the Roman Catholic sovereign the majority of executive and legal power, and gave the Roman Catholic church power over education, social institutions, and other facets of Italian society. The liberal Italian constitution enfranchised and liberated Jews and religious minorities from anti-Semitic legal provisions of pre-liberal Roman Catholic Italy.”

Why Liberalism Failed offers a disturbing and necessary look at a society in decay. Whether that decay was or is caused by liberalism remains to be seen. Liberalism’s sins are many, and Deneen is right to enumerate what he perceives them to be. But too often liberalism seems a stand in for modern American society, or something the author dislikes about that society. The differences between liberal and pre-liberal society are overstated. The Prince of Salina, protagonist of Tomasi di Lampedusa’s Il Gattopardo, famously tells his family and friends: “For everything to stay the same, everything must change.” He quietly supports replacing the pre-liberal Sicilian monarchy with the liberal Italian state. While the whole political order ostensibly changed, very little actually changed in the prince’s Sicily. Deneen clearly shows that liberalism has weaknesses; but fails to convince the reader that liberalism as defined has actually failed entirely or is even the source of western ills. By narrowly selecting only certain intellectual figures and events, Why Liberalism Fails never makes the case for what liberalism actually is or was, nor does the work provide an lexicon for determining was distinguished conservative societies from liberal ones. If liberalism is never properly distinguished from conservatism etc, how can we know it has failed?

Miles Smith is Assistant Professor of History at Regent University.

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