Opinion editorials, reviews and personal essays
By Ryan Strong
Why Liberalism Failed (Politics and Culture)
By Patrick J. Deneen
248 pp. Yale University Press.
Though the title seems to suggest that this book would be a conservative polemic against those on the left, it is in fact anything but. This book, in fact, is a sweeping critique of modern political theory and practice, particularly within the American context. Furthermore, Deneen, a professor of political science at Notre Dame, indicts both sides in the political debate as being opposite sides of the same coin of classical liberalism, which is the main target of his short polemic.
Classical liberalism is the first term that needs to be defined. Classical liberalism is one of the three “great” Enlightenment ideologies: fascism and communism being the other two. It is associated with such luminaries as John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, and Rosseau. It is generally associated in the public imagination with features such as written constitutions, civil liberties, and democratic elections.
Now, as far as it can be seen, Deneen is not particularly opposed to the ideas listed above. However, he argues that classical liberalism, rather than simply being a pragmatic political arrangement, actually has a fundamental view of human flourishing, human nature, and the good that discreetly shape the policies of most liberal democracies. Thus, arguably the center of Deneen’s book is a criticism of the state of nature. The state of nature is an idea that tries to imagine human beings in a period without culture or society. Deneen argues that this idea is fundamentally wrong-headed, as no humans in any point in history live without culture or society; humans are tribal animals, after all. Furthermore, the book argues that the essential project of liberalism is to return man to the imagined state of nature. In other words, classical liberalism wants to liberate man from all constraints that could be placed on him by community, family, and society.
As a result, the book argues that the massive amount of social isolation, collapse in community engagement, and social problems that currently afflict the United States are actually a direct result of classical liberal ideology, an ideology that he argues permeates both political parties. Thus, he argues that it is essential for alternatives to classical liberalism to be developed in order to allow these problems to be resolved.
To begin, the book definitely is one of the most fascinating books I have read all year. Its thesis is totally original, and Deneen is obviously a capable political scientist. In particular, I enjoyed his reading of John Locke, as he describes how Locke actually supported the creation a new elite to replace the aristocracy of the Ancient Regime; I never knew about the anti-egalitarian thread of liberalism.
Perhaps my main reason for being skeptical of Deneen revolves around his sense of doom and gloom. After all, there have been pundits in late modernity who have been constantly predicting the end of the world, and surprise; the world is still spinning. Another possible area of criticism is whether or not philosophy really drives history to the degree that Deneen seems to think that it does. However, it seems to me that material circumstances drive acceptance of ideas as much as ideas drive material circumstances. Thus, perhaps the problems that Deneen sees in the United States are not solely attributable to classical liberalism.
In the final analysis though, "Why Liberalism Failed" deserves to be widely read for the sheer boldness of its thesis and its willingness to cut against the grain of modern society. If nothing else, "Why Liberalism Failed" is certainly more profound and thoughtful than most of what passes as political discourse in modern society. I also think that it is particularly relevant for SAS students who often have a more Western outlook, but live in a country such as China. It perhaps challenges what can sometimes be our complacency about the superiority of Western, liberal democracy and force us to consider if other systems have benefits. As a result, I strongly recommend all students, especially those who like politics, to read it and consider its merits.