The Failures of Liberalism

The intellectual critique of liberalism is coextensive with liberalism itself, going back at least as far as Giambattista Vico’s dispute with Descartes. The term “liberalism” itself doesn’t designate a political philosophy until the late 18th or early 19th century, and it no sooner appears then it appears with formidable enemies. Nor is this opposition confined to men of the Right. Figures as diverse as the Catholic Traditionalist John Rao and the postmodernist John Milbank converge in their opposition to Liberalism. Cultural conservatives like Russell Kirk join with socialists like Karl Polanyi in denouncing it. And even Karl Marx confers on Liberalism the derisive term “capitalism,” by which he means a philosophy that elevates dead matter over the living worker. Sociologists as diverse as Charles Murray and Robert Putnam have reduced its failures to charts and tables. And each new season comes with a new work denouncing Liberalism, so much so that it would seem to be a full-time job just to keep up with new titles in this rather extensive genre.

In such an environment, it would seem to be a challenge to say anything new or interesting on the subject; indeed, much of the literature is much of a muchness. Yet comes now Patrick Deneen with Why Liberalism Failed, and he does manage to say something original and useful on the topic. And most useful is the way he is able to make manifest all the manifest failures of Liberalism in a relatively brief book. For that alone, those of us who tire easily of tomes can be grateful.

The story that Prof. Deneen tells with such devastating accuracy is that the actual practice of Liberalism always negates the principles of Liberalism. Its liberty leads only to license, its individualism to the expansion of the state, its efforts to understand nature become a war on nature in the name of profit and exploitation; the “freedom” of the market results in markets freed from social and ethical contexts; the “freedom of labor” results in the subjugation of labor, its reduction to a commodity to be purchased at the lowest price, regardless of the resulting degradation of the family and the community. Liberalism has turned culture into an anti-culture and education becomes detached from culture to become an engine of this anti-culture, an education into avarice. Far from leading us to a more equal society, Liberalism has paved the way for the rise of a new aristocracy, an aristocracy of money and power, totally divorced from the common good. In short, Liberalism promises a world of freedom and equity, and then breaks every promise.

The Triumph of Liberalism

But what is especially unique about the book is that despite its title, what Prof. Deneen records is Liberalism’s absolute and total victory over every rival theory, its capture of every major institution, its penetration of every area of life, art, education, and commerce. The formidable intellectual artillery ranged against the liberals does not seem to have slowed their advance in the least. Indeed, it is this very success which Prof. Deneen identifies as the source of its failure: “Liberalism has failed because liberalism has succeeded.”1 Once it succeeds in banishing its opponents and governing without restriction according to its own internal logic, its contradictions and inadequacies become manifest. Its anthropological and philosophic assumptions are simply insufficient to deliver what it promises.

But perhaps Liberalism’s greatest triumph is that it has colonized the opposition and reduced the political debate to one that takes place entirely within the bounds delineated by liberals. Deneen points out that our political battles are no longer between “conservatives” and liberals, but between “Classical” liberals, who emphasize individualism and market choices, and “progressive” liberals, who “claim that the individual is never wholly self-sufficient, and that we must instead understand ourselves to be more deeply defined by membership in a larger unit of humanity.”2 What always seems to happen is that yesterday’s Whig becomes today’s Tory; the liberalism of the last age is the conservatism of the present moment. The brutal truth is that what American conservatism conserves is mostly the values of the Enlightenment.

The brutal truth is that what American conservatism conserves is mostly the values of the Enlightenment.  

This leads me to consider what is perhaps the more interesting question: Not “why does Liberalism fail?” but “Why on earth does it succeed?” Or to put the question another way, “Why does Anti-Liberalism fail, and fail always and everywhere?” And why does its opposition locate itself within the very Liberalism it opposes? Perhaps Liberalism has a stronger attraction to us than either side cares to acknowledge, an attraction that that is deeply rooted in our Christian history.

The Christian Roots of Liberalism

If Liberalism is to be saved from its own excesses, we must understand its achievement in terms of continuity with the history of Western Christian thought.  

In the concluding chapter of the book, Patrick Deneen makes an admission which, while absolutely true, is startling in that it seems to contradict the premise of the book. He says that “the achievements of liberalism must be acknowledged, and the desire to “return” to a preliberal age must be eschewed. We must build upon those achievements while abandoning the foundational reasons for its failures. There can be no going back, only forward.”3 This is jarring because up to this point he has not highlighted any achievements. But locating those achievements is crucial to building upon them. He goes on to say,

The advent of Christianity, and its development in the now largely neglected political philosophy of the Middle Ages, emphasized the dignity of the individual, the concept of the person, the existence of rights and corresponding duties, the paramount importance of civil society and a multiplicity of associations, and the concept of limited government as the best means of forestalling the inevitable human temptation toward tyranny. Liberalism’s most basic appeal was not its rejection of the past but its reliance upon basic concepts that were foundational to the Western political identity.4

This is a crucially important point. If Liberalism is to be saved from its own excesses, we must understand its achievement in terms of continuity with the history of Western Christian thought. Some Christian conservatives subscribe to a discontinuous theory of history, in which things were going tolerably well until the course of history was perverted by (take your pick) the Renaissance, the Reformation, or the Enlightenment. With this in mind, the political task, for this group, is simply to return to an idyllic past. But as Prof. Deneen notes, “If we hope to create a humane postliberal future, we cannot pretend that the age of liberalism did not happen or that its basic contours can simply be jettisoned in some sort of restoration of an idyllic preliberal age. That age never existed.”5 And this is an especially important point for conservatives who wish to root their position in something other than 18th century Whiggery. It is important to enumerate at least a few of these liberal achievements in terms of their Christian origins.6

The Discovery of the Individual

Perhaps no idea is more associated with Liberalism then the idea of individualism, the idea of the transcendent dignity of the person, possessing his or her own will and a value independent of their social position. This idea is central to the Christian message. It is easy to forget today just how profoundly Christianity altered the relationship between the individual and the world. For antiquity, the world was eternal but individuals were transient. The Polis or Civitas was regarded as potentially eternal (e.g., “Eternal Rome”) and collapsed only because of sin and decadence in its members.7 Thus Aristotle could place the state over the citizen8 and even the virtues had a mainly civic function of ensuring peace; the transitory individual was a threat to the endurance of the state, ethics were enclosed by politics, and the individual a mere passing instance of a more general (and enduring) type.

The Christian message changed all of that; empires come and go, but each person has an incomparable dignity and an everlasting destiny. The cramped civic virtues of moderation and limits were supplemented by the theological virtue of charity, which was an overflowing, always an “excess.”9 Moreover, each person, bearing a name, was in a sense a “species unto himself,” unique and unrepeatable. The world itself is a mere passing shadow, the person an eternal reality. The human person, now liberated from the accidents of birth that bound him or her to a social status, could make a free decision to join the new Christian community. “Who is my mother and my brother? … Whoever does the will of my heavenly Father is my brother, and sister, and mother” (Matthew 12:48-50). That is to say, by a free act of the will, the individual could escape the bounds of conformity to a social status and join a community not based on class or blood.

But as Liberalism became secular, the individual became an ism, an ideology. And this ideology was no longer about the free decision to associate with a community, but about the right, or even the duty, to disassociate from any family or community; under the influence of secularism, we become isolated individuals whose relations were not organic, but transactional and based solely on self-interest.

Natural Rights

The idea of natural rights, as in Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man, has become associated with modernity, but in fact, they emerged in the middle ages and in the development of canon law, a law that transcended the ethnic and class-based laws of particular nations and applied to king and commoner, prince and peasant alike. As Brian Tierney put it, “Medieval people first struggled for survival; then they struggled for rights.”10 By 1300 a number of particular rights were regularly defended in terms of natural law. They would include rights to property, rights of consent to government, rights of self-defense, rights of infidels, marriage rights, and procedural rights.11

All of these “rights” were deemed necessary to advance the common good.12 But as the social order became more secularized, these rights became separate from the common good, from duties, and from natural law to become free-standing claims by atomistic individuals on the body politic, enforced by an ever more powerful state.

Democracy

A democracy that included all members of the community, regardless of social condition, has its roots in monasticism, self-governing communities where individuals freely submit to the rule of an abbot they themselves have elected. Moreover, the monasteries represented the ideals of moral equality replacing “natural” inequality and the dignity of labor replacing the notion that physical labor was “servile.” The ideals of self-government spread from the monastic rule to corporate law. Here, the corporation was no longer necessarily a creature of public authority, but could be founded by any group apart from the state. And authority flowed upward from the members to the officers, and even then, the officers had to get the consent of the members for certain decisions.13

From the corporation and the monasteries, the idea of self-government would spread to the cities, which achieved their independence from the feudal lords and became self-governing corporations, with ultimate authority lodged in an assembly of people. The cities established a new class of persons, one that stood between the serf and the nobles, the middle or bourgeoisie. The cities became the locus of freedom, where a runaway serf who could evade capture for a year became a freeman: “the air of the city makes free.”14

But over time, the cities themselves became more oligarchic, and their commercial bias made them more secular. Its democracy became less a deliberative action taking place in an assembly or a council, and more the act of solitary persons; eventually, this act takes place in a “voting booth”; there, alone and isolated, the individual makes his political act of faith, with partisan propaganda substituting for the voice of conscience.

Liberalism Secularized

This brief analysis could be extended to many areas, but it should be sufficient to show that Liberalism is not, in itself, something alien to the Christian experience, but rather something that arises from it. Indeed, by the 14th and early 15th centuries, Liberalism had been firmly established, rooted in four fundamental principles: natural equality was the only basis for a legal system; moral conduct had to be a free act of the will; the individual had natural rights and hence a degree of liberty; and only a representative government was appropriate for free men.15

The people who longed for liberty, equality, and fraternity ended up getting, as Marx noted, “Cavalry, infantry, and artillery.”  

There is one historical thread that unites all of these principles: as they moved further from their Christian roots, they became more and more secularized, that is, divorced from their roots. And like any plant separated from its roots, it became perverse. Under the influence of the purely secular notions of the Enlightenment, the ancient Christian ideals of Liberté, égalité, fraternité, became weaponized and turned against their founders, leading to The Terror and the Vendée. The people who longed for liberty, equality, and fraternity ended up getting, as Marx noted, “Cavalry, infantry, and artillery.”

Still, the Enlightenment is not sufficient to explain the complete triumph of a purely secular Liberalism, or rather of the capture of Liberalism by secularism. Indeed, the French Revolution sparked a reaction that held the forces in balance and staved off the victory of secularism throughout the 19th century. But secularism triumphed in the 20th century, and this triumph would have another cause, a cause related to secularism’s very powerful ally, and the engine of its success.

Politics, Culture, and Breakfast

“Politics,” Andrew Breitbart famously observed, “is downstream from culture.” True enough, but he should have added, “…and culture is downstream from breakfast.” One does not have to be a Marxist to note the connection between culture and agriculture, between the way we make our living and what we come to believe. For man is first of all a material being, and must eat before he can do anything else, and must keep eating if he plans to continue doing what he is doing. Our practices sooner or later dictate our beliefs and control our culture. And the economic practice that came to displace all rivals was Liberal, secular capitalism.

That capitalism is “Liberal” is beyond dispute; indeed, the 18th and 19th century name for it was simply “Liberalism.” “Capitalism” was the Marxist epithet for the Liberals. But as economic Liberalism fell into disrepute, beginning with the Long Depression of 1873-1879 (but which lasted, on and off, until 1896), its adherents repackaged it as “capitalism” and it became the content of conservatism. But we should probably still use the phrase, “Liberal capitalism,” always keeping the two words together, in much the same way as my mother, a Southerner, always regarded the phrase “damn Yankees” as one word. “Conservatives” need to be constantly reminded that what they preach is actually Liberalism.

But Liberal capitalism was also something else, and something worse: it was self-consciously secular. From its beginnings, it demanded the right to absent itself from ethical and political norms. This was most famously expressed in Bernard de Mandeville’s poem, The Fable of the Bees, a long, doggerel polemic whose meaning was given entirely in its subtitle, “Private Vices, Publick Benefits. For Mandeville, it was not love or any other virtue that made the world go round, but pure, unleavened vice.

Thus every Part was full of Vice,
Yet the whole Mass a Paradice;
Flatter’d in Peace, and fear’d in Wars
They were th’Esteem of Foreigners,
And lavish of their Wealth and Lives,
The Ballance of all other Hives.
Such were the Blessings of that State;
Their Crimes conspired to make ’em Great.16

Of course, Mandeville was not inventing a system; he was merely giving a rationale (of sorts) to that which had already become the brute facts of society. Later thinkers would soften his “vice” to the more neutral-sounding “self-interest,” but the effects are the same: Liberal, secular capitalism would carve out for itself an area not circumscribed by morals or religion, and it would accept only such limits that aided the free flow of goods and money. Accept them, that is, until the trade wars turned into hot wars. And then all limits were off.

Conservatives have been sensitive to the so-called “cultural Marxists” and their supposed “march through the institutions” but they have been oblivious to the fact that secular capitalism has already completed its march through the institutions, remaking each of them in turn in its own image and likeness. Not only business, but farms, hospitals, universities, schools, even charities. Even churches. All must become simulacra of the capitalist model, sprinkled with a veneer of the old liberal values left over from a now defunct Christian era. And having completed its march through the Western institutions, it now seeks the same on a global basis, displacing all cultural rivals even before they have a proper chance to express themselves.

Capitalism, Secularism, and Hedonism

Liberalism often takes the blame for making us into isolated, hedonistic individuals, but this ignores the rather obvious 24/7 bombardment we all suffer from the propaganda of capitalism, that is, advertising and marketing. And this advertising has but one objective: to turn us into constantly dissatisfied and isolated individuals who seek our happiness in things rather than in human relationships. And it is of vital importance to Liberal capitalism to create a culture of hedonism, for the perfect hedonist is also the perfect consumer.

Patrick Deneen is certainly aware of the power of advertising to remake culture, and he cites one such advertisement, a campaign ad for Barack Obama called “The Life of Julia.”17 One can argue whether or not he over-interprets the ad, but the more interesting question is, “Why limit the discussion to one political campaign ad when we are bombarded by 10,000 of these commercial messages each and every day?” Make no mistake; the vast majority of these advertisements contain political and cultural messages designed to form, or mal-form, the mind of the consumer. Or more accurately, to make him mindless. One of the popular cultural memes for some time has been the zombie: the living dead who mindlessly pursue a single product, other minds which they can make like theirs. I can’t think of a better metaphor for our culture of commercial mindlessness.

Having completed its march of destruction through the institutions, Liberal capitalism concludes with a march of destruction through the human psyche itself.  

And the technologies of mind control are staggering. Each and every day, Liberal capitalism summons an army of psychologists, sociologists, demographers, artists, and technologists of every stripe, all utilizing engines of astounding power that not even their creators comprehend. This army is turned against the mind and heart of each individual with the sole purpose of making him mindless and heartless, making him or her a pure consumer, a hedonist, a zombie. Having completed its march of destruction through the institutions, Liberal capitalism concludes with a march of destruction through the human psyche itself. It is a war that begins in the nursery, and continues to the last moment of an individual’s life.

Conservatives have aligned themselves with the greatest engine of secularization, descralization, and demoralization in the history of mankind; it is not a good platform for preaching family values. Never in human history has the human person been subject to such relentless attack and by such sophisticated technologies. Unless we understand the problem, unless we identify the correct mechanism of secularization, we will not understand how to combat it. Which brings us to the question of solutions.

The “Benedict Option” and the Necessity of Politics

Prof. Deneen well understands the connection between theory and practice, namely that practice precedes theory, or as I have put it, culture is downstream from breakfast. So he concludes, “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. Not a better theory, but better practices.”18 What he calls for is the establishment of countercultural (or as he calls it, “counter-anticultural”) communities where the virtues can be exercised and non-capitalist methods of production can be practiced. These counter-anticultural economies would be “household economies” developed to “transform the household into a small economy.” He sees these household economies as replacing the Liberal order as that order collapses.19 It is Prof. Deneen’s hope that from these new communities,

a viable postliberal political theory will arise, one that begins with fundamentally different anthropological assumptions not arising from a supposed state of nature or concluding with a world-straddling state and market, but instead building on the fact of human relationality, sociability, and the learned ability to sacrifice one’s narrow personal interest not to abstract humanity, but for the sake of other humans.20

This is the “Benedict Option” made popular by Rod Dreher. It seems to defer a solution to some future age and to some as yet undiscovered theory, and the political philosopher must wait upon the future so that it can comment on what has passed.

That new forms of community are necessary is indisputable; whether by itself they constitute a “solution” is another matter. There are some obvious problems with this solution. The first is that Prof. Deneen is far too modest about his own profession. He is quite right that theory arises from practice, but theory is necessary to keep the practice going, to shape it and provide a rationale. It is certainly correct that the role of the philosopher is not primary, but it is necessary. The political philosopher cannot simply abandon his role and hope for the best, hope that someday the future will provide an answer. Indeed, if one really believed that, would it not be best to abandon the classroom and become a carpenter? Progress does not happen without practice, but practice does not progress without reflection.

And poxing both houses only enables them both, and the worse more than the better.  

The second problem is that while Prof. Deneen correctly describes the process, he downplays the fact that this process takes generations, or even centuries, to come to fruition. But people must live in the meantime. They must feed their children and take them to the doctor or the hospital when they are sick. They must educate them. They must live in the world as it is. It is simply an abdication of one’s responsibility to absent oneself from the political struggles of the day while constructing more robust household economies. There is, to be sure, a certain satisfaction in proclaiming “a pox on both your houses,” staying above the fray and critiquing all who dirty their hands with practical politics. But nothing ever grows unless somebody is willing to get his hands dirty. And poxing both houses only enables them both, and the worse more than the better.

But the third, and perhaps greatest problem, is that the Benedict option is too easily interpreted as a hope for collapse. Certainly the statement, “With the demise of the liberal order, such countercultures will come to be seen not as ‘options’ but as necessities”21 sounds like a hope for collapse. But the problem is that the alternative “counter-anticultural” communities themselves depend on the maintenance of liberal order. Collapse benefits no one but the bandits. The collapse of the Roman Empire did not empower the citizen but reduced him to a serf. The collapse of the Soviet Empire enabled only the oligarchs and established a former KGB officer as autocrat of the Russians. The demise of the Carolingian empire and its dissolution into local principalities left Europe defenseless against the simultaneous assaults of the Saracens from the South, Magyars from the East, and Vikings from the North; such “localism” made the 9th and 10th centuries a time of widespread misery, and enabled the roving bands of mounted thugs—the origin of the knights—who pillaged Europe from within. I cannot think of a single historical precedent for a “successful” collapse; it resides in the realm of pure fantasy, and a very dangerous fantasy at that. We can only hope that the benedictines22 do not get what they hope for.

All that being said, we do need to create as many alternative spaces as possible, in education, in agriculture, publishing, manufacturing, distribution, housing—in short—culture in all its many facets and expressions. But this turns out to be a political problem, or at least a problem with a political component. The legal framework for cooperatives needs to be expanded; they should receive preferential treatment in tax and regulatory law. The practice of taxing capital at a lower rate than labor needs to be ended. Anti-trust laws need to be enforced so that monopolies and oligarchies can broken-up, providing market space for smaller entities. The ability of large corporations to externalize their costs on the public needs to be curtailed. The influence of money in politics needs to be limited. These and dozens of other fundamental political problems need to be addressed. The Benedict Option itself depends on all the things the benedictines do not wish to do.

The Benedict Option itself depends on all the things the benedictines do not wish to do.  

What “localists” forget (and I say this as a localist myself) is that subsidiarity works two ways; some functions must be delegated upward if the local is to thrive. There are simply some tasks that the “household economy” cannot accomplish from its own resources. The local has always existed in tension with higher level formations. To break the tension would be to collapse the whole structure and destroy the local. And then the warlords arise. The Amish farmers so admired by localists would find themselves paying tribute to some local thug, assuming they would be allowed to keep their farms at all.

Re-Telling the Story

We live in a strange time where the meanings of “conservative” and “progressive” seem to have changed places. Many “conservatives” (especially of the “neo” variety) and at least some liberals (especially of the “neo” variety) have placed their faith in the greatest engine of cultural and psychic destruction the world has ever known. Indeed, it is the “progressives,” as Patrick Deneen realizes, that have come to recognize “that we must instead understand ourselves to be more deeply defined by membership in a larger unit of humanity.”23 Indeed, one can often find more actual “conservatism” on the pages of Mother Jones Magazine then on the pages of The National Review. Our political task is a complex one, but also a liberating one, in that it liberates us from mere partisan politics. We must make alliances where we can. Sometimes we must be Bernie Bros, and other times follow the lead of the Cato Institute. We have the strange task of holding the Liberal order together while undermining its secular foundations.

We need to tell the story in a way that reconnects the liberal values with their Christian roots.  

But prior to the political problem, there is the cultural task. And the cultural task is one of telling stories, because culture is built and maintained by the stories we tell ourselves. So we need to tell the story in a way that reconnects the liberal values with their Christian roots, and thereby recovers Liberté, égalité, and fraternité from the dead-end of the French Revolution and restores them to their original dignity and coherence.

There are many historical precedents for this. One should suffice for illustration. Before Martin Luther King came to prominence, there had already been 70 years of agitation for civil rights, none of it very effective and most leading to even more harsh enforcement of the Jim Crow laws and even more intimidation. The Southern defense of slavery rested on a narrative that was more Old Testament then New: Yahweh God, in his infinite but inscrutable wisdom, had assigned the races different degrees of intelligence and humanity, so that it was necessary that one race rule the other; segregation was therefore fully in accordance with God’s plan. The narrative was as complete as it was impenetrable; it allowed no space for dissent. But Dr. King, a minister of the Gospel, told a different story, one that most Christians could eventually recognize as more authentic. And once that story was accepted, segregation was doomed. With its religious and cultural foundations called into question, it could not long stand. It took a generation, but nobody thinks that it can come back.

In the same way, we have to give a new narration which reconnects the Christian values of Liberalism with their Christian roots so that they may gain new life, and can deliver what they promise. And every good story, at least in Christian lands, is really just a retelling of the Gospel story, a record how the images of God play out in history. But no version of that story can be compatible with secularism, and no area of life can escape the story. Alongside the economic and political task, there is the literary task, because culture cannot be reformed without all three. And without this new reformation, the West cannot be saved. In truth, we cannot rid ourselves of Liberalism unless we rid ourselves of Christianity, but neither Liberalism nor Christianity can survive a totalizing secularism. And the great engine of secularization is Capitalism.

Our problem, then, is best summed up by Larry Siedentop as follows:

Failure to understand that relationship [between Christianity and Liberalism] makes it easier to underestimate the moral content of liberal secularism. In the Western world today, it contributes to two temptations, to what might be called two ‘liberal heresies’. The first is the temptation to reduce liberalism to the endorsement of market economics, the satisfaction of current wants or preferences without worrying much about the formation of those wants or preferences. In doing so, it narrows the claims of justice. This temptation reduces liberalism to a crude form of utilitarianism. The second temptation is best described as ‘individualism’, the retreat into a private sphere of family and friends at the expense of civic spirit and political participation. This weakens the habit of association and eventually endangers the self-reliance which the claims of citizenship require. … If we in the West do not understand the moral depth of our own tradition, how can we hope to shape the conversation of mankind?24

How indeed.


  1. Patrick Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed, Kindle (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2018), 179.
  2. Deneen, 46.
  3. Deneen, 179.
  4. Deneen, 179.
  5. Deneen, 179.
  6. Some excellent sources for the Medieval roots of Liberal ideals include: Larry Siedentop, Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism, Kindle (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014); Brian Tierney, The Idea of Natural Rights: Studies on Natural Rights, Natural Law, and Church Law 1150 – 1625, Kindle, Emory University Studies in Law and Religion (Grand Rapids, Michigan/ Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001); Colin Morris, The Discovery of the Individual, 1050-1200, Medieval Academy Reprints (Toronto, Buffalo, London: University of Toronto Press, 1987).
  7. Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind: Willing, One-Volume Edition (New York: Harvest/HBJ, 1978), 66.
  8. Aristotle, The Basic Works of Aristotle: Politics, ed. R. McKeon, trans. Benjamin Jowett (New York: The Modern Library, 1947), 1336 a25-30.
  9. John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1990), 360.
  10. Tierney, The Idea of Natural Rights, l. 665.
  11. Siedentop, Inventing the Individual, 247.
  12. Tierney, The Idea of Natural Rights, l. 2265.
  13. Siedentop, Inventing the Individual, 234.
  14. Siedentop, 269–74.
  15. Siedentop, 331.
  16. Bernard de Mandeville, The Grumbling Hive, or Knaves Turn’d Honest, ed. Jack Lynch (London, 1705), ll. 155–162, http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~jlynch/Texts/hive.html.
  17. Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed, 56.
  18. Deneen, 179.
  19. Deneen, 179.
  20. Deneen, 179.
  21. Deneen, 179.
  22. In lower case, to distinguish them from the Benedictines, a different order entirely.
  23. Deneen, 46.
  24. Siedentop, Inventing the Individual, 363.

11 COMMENTS

  1. I enjoyed this. I work as a child therapist, and utilize community building and gardenning as a therapeutic intervention with young people. Your examination of liberalism and conservative thinking reflect some of my own internal dialogues. Some observations in community building as a clinician: conservative thinking often embodies a set of institutions to preserve gains already made, while liberalism takes the form of an institution to make room for new gains. While my work does not always fall into a category of academic with the children I help, pondering these systems of thought remind me who I am providing service to individually as well as the community. Thank you.

  2. Dear Prof. Medaille,
    This is an excellent essay! I wanted to make two brief points regarding your first two critiques of Prof. Deneen.
    Your first critique states that “theory is necessary to keep the practice going, to shape it and provide a rationale. It is certainly correct that the role of the philosopher is not primary, but it is necessary.” While Deneen does not address this in Why Liberalism Failed, he does specifically treat of it in Conserving America?, specifically the opening chapter on 9/11. There he discusses what he considers to be the necessity of recovering the “Greek practice of political theory/philosophy,” which entails the observation of the practices of other cities, and then to given an account (logos) to one’s own city, always with the theoretical standard of the Good as the mark. This is not a critique of your position, but just an acknowledgment that Deneen has written on this.

    Your second point is that Deneen perhaps overlooks the fact that we “have to live in the meantime.” I would simply say that Deneen’s account of culture (and not just in this book, but in many essays on FPR) is one that presupposes, and necessarily includes, a more wholesome understanding of “time.” One of his critiques of liberalism as ideology is that it is abstract, and its disembodying habits break us from seeing and building a culture over generations precisely because we have been decontexualized (historically and from nature). In other words, I would imagine that Deneen would agree with you in your astute judgment that culture takes generations to build and nourish.

    Just making note of these two points, and I hope they are not conceived in the manner of criticisms of your rather excellent essay! I thoroughly enjoyed it. Thank you.

  3. As a lay reader (I’m not an academic, and I don’t claim special expertise in any field) this is one of the best arguments I’ve seen for liberalism’s Christian roots, but you may be overemphasizing the individualistic dimensions of Christianity and thus the extent to which liberalism springs from it.

    You say that liberalism’s conception of the individual as having inherent dignity and an “everlasting destiny” was first introduced by Christianity. But you downplay a key point here, that Christianity believes that the individual only realizes that everlasting destiny through participation in the Body of Christ (the Church). Someone who doesn’t participate can expect everlasting non-existence, an “anti-destiny” if you will. That Christianity is a community of people, not an abstract system of ideas and beliefs that a private individual chooses to espouse, is crucial because it shows how Christianity is not so much the displacement of the polis and the “liberation” of the individual as much as it is itself the very fulfillment of the ancient polis. It reconciles the ancient divisions between man, and the polis (fulfilled in the Church). No longer is man “a threat to the endurance of the polis”, no longer are ethics subject to politics; in the Church all human relations and human morality have been transformed and transfigured. In the church, man can live in perfect harmony with his fellows and with God. It’s a paradox: the only way that man’s uniqueness and personality can flourish is when he exists in this state of harmony with others, just as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit exist in communion with each other but remain differentiated. Apart from this, man can lay no claim to inherent dignity and remains, in his fallen state, worse than a beast.

    But all this has taken place only in a spiritual sense, because we are living in the shadow of things to come, the moment before the dawn. Christ’s Resurrection did not physically “liberate” man from “the accidents of birth that bound him to a social status”, something that will be achieved at the Second Coming. Slaves were still slaves after becoming Christians, princes were still princes, etc., and this would have been seen by all early Christians as a healthy state of affairs. They would have regarded the overturning of social norms and the deconstruction of communal identity as a disaster. The radical aspect of Christianity was that masters had to treat their slaves as if they were Christ Himself, that the strong were obligated to care for the weak, not that the weak had the right to be independent of the strong or were entitled to cut the strong down to size. Physical and emotional suffering, especially innocent suffering, taking up one’s cross and following in Christ’s footsteps, are the only path to redemption in Christianity – something that liberalism finds completely unintelligible.

    It seems to me that liberalism in its earliest days set itself up in opposition to Christianity by making man and nature, not God, the measure of all things. We see this clearly in the natural law theorists of the 17th and 18th centuries (Locke, Hobbes, Rousseau, etc.), there are hints of it in the (admittedly mostly healthy) humanism of the Renaissance and the revolt of the Reformation, and it may even be present in the natural philosophy of Thomas Aquinas (although, not having read Aquinas, I don’t claim firsthand knowledge of his work). Once God was out of the picture, things were bound to go downhill, and starting from the Industrial Revolution onward man’s tortured fantasies of power and domination became the standard by which everything in the world was judged.

    Perhaps your version of liberalism is different that what I’ve described, but if it is, I’m not sure it resembles anything that anyone today would readily recognize as liberalism. I don’t discount the value of apologetics, but it seems to me that offering a clearer alternative to today’s liberalism is the best option, rather than trying to convince others on their own terms. Certainly the acknowledged inheritors of liberalism’s mantle, the proponents of “progress”, are fearless in articulating their techno-utopian vision for the future. We should be equally courageous in staking out the alternative, even if it opens us up to the critique that we’re undermining the liberal system. Especially if that system was built on a rotten foundation from the start.

  4. Prior to the political task, and the cultural task (including its literary and scriptural component) is a prior and critical organisational task – organising the disparate individuals, communities, associations and ecclesial assemblies who aspire to constitute (in all our diversity) life in post-capitalist, post-liberal forms. This is the essential immediate task, the precondition for all others. If an organised post-liberal movement (call it distributist or associationist or pro-civil society or Catholic social action, whatever you like) is created, it will draw together the various components that currently suffer through their disconnection – it will have a Benedictine component of local initiatives and associations; an educational component of independent schools, universities and adult education ventures; a network of inter-connected mutual, cooperative and family-owned businesses; an electoral arm to get post-liberals elected to city councils and state legislatures. It will encompass ALL of these. Each is important, and each contributes to the movement as a whole.

    But …. we are not organised. Leftists are super organised; neo-liberals and populist nationalists both take organisation seriously. But we do not even talk about getting organised. We do not, as John says, want to get our hands dirty with the messy but absolutely essential task of organising ourselves. A century ago, when Belloc and Chesterton formed the Distributist League in the UK, or when mid-western farmers’ coops formed the Populist Party, or when the Catholic Federation of Australia formed the Democratic Party, there was no internet. The financial and labour costs of getting organised were high. In the internet age, there is no excuse. It can and must be done, globally, as a network of networks, magnifying the disparate individual and associational efforts of post-liberals, communitarians, localists and mutualists so that we become an organised movement whose vastness dwarfs the activity of our rivals. It is our primary task.

    • >A century ago, when Belloc and Chesterton formed the Distributist League in the UK, or when mid-western farmers’ coops formed the Populist Party, or when the Catholic Federation of Australia formed the Democratic Party, there was no internet.

      Can you point at what these “organizations” accomplished?

      • These organisations were casualties of the 20th century’s polarisation between Left and Right. Thye succeeded in identifying and articulating the need for citizens to organise themselves independently of the Left-Right axis, and began that work. But ultimately they were overrun by a wave of factors that pushed individuals and movements into the binary universe of Left and Right. A century on, the Left- Right axis has collapsed around the world, leaving space for the re-emergence of a politics that is based upon the relational – human beings flourish in relationship, in voluntary association with others for the common good, not in individualist isolation nor in subservience to statist managerialism.

  5. ~~But the third, and perhaps greatest problem, is that the Benedict option is too easily interpreted as a hope for collapse. Certainly the statement, “With the demise of the liberal order, such countercultures will come to be seen not as ‘options’ but as necessities”21 sounds like a hope for collapse.~~

    I’d agree that it can be interpreted that way, but it doesn’t seem to me that Prof. Deneen, Rod Dreher, or the majority of its supporters do in fact interpret it that way. Rod has said on numerous occasions that a collapse would be horrific for just about everyone, so it’s nothing to be hoped for.

  6. This article and most of the comments seem to point at a desire for an increased Christian “voice” in the Liberal politics. Alright. If that’s what you desire, you may rethink the account that the Civil Rights “Movement” succeeded because it offered a better story. Maybe it succeeded because it used its “voice” to aggrandize Power and framed things as in need of Power’s intervention (greater involvement in education, housing, commerce, etc.). Most despots will flatter flatterers.

  7. I loved this essay. It’s aligned with many of my personal beliefs and thoughts about religion, economics and society. I was Gerard, however to see mention of Breitbart name. This essay was my first exposure to you, Professor Médaille. I have to ask, are you a reader of Breitbart?

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