We live, to borrow the title from Daniel T. Rodgers’s excellent 2011 book, in an age of fracture. Whether any time in history has been without fracturing is a point for debate, but, experientially at least, it sure seems that something is currently amiss. Verities as old as time—regarding human nature, the body, and the material world—continue to be disrupted and overturned at an accelerating pace thanks to scientific advance and philosophical challenge. Temples of timelessness more recently constructed—the liberal political institutions of the U.S. Constitution for example—also appear to be trembling under the weight of this something. The once promising results of technological innovation have transformed from savior to nemesis. Labor saving devices are somehow mandating more labor; the well-paying jobs are going to machines while human beings are forced to accumulate as many low-paying jobs as possible to make ends meet. Innovations that were meant to protect us from nature are making the natural world only more threatening. Technologies intended to foster community are instead worming their way into the sinews of society, eroding community from the inside with each dip of the head towards the smartphone.

The fracturing is so all-encompassing that it’s hard to figure out what the root something is that is broken. In previous ages, and even recent decades, thinkers managed to agree (gaggles of dissenters aside) on a single issue that might be at work: godlessness, inequality, a failure to apply the scientific method to social problems, imperialism, the lack of an international organization to preserve the peace, racism. At the moment we are instead struggling to merely complete the catalogue of what’s going wrong. We know we are hurtling towards a dystopia but which one?

Of the answers advanced, I—like many readers of the Porch, no doubt—think Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed is among the most compelling. His dystopia is that of “liberalism”: the socio-political order of legal equality, limited government, and individual liberty that emerged in the 18th century. Deneen contends that, for all liberalism’s merits, it was born with a fatal flaw: an anthropological assumption that denied important existential realities and thus has had deeply inhumane consequences. Liberalism’s original sin was positing that society is the product of individual humans coming in from the dystopian cold of the “state of nature,” voluntarily associating for the common protection of their lives and property.

Human beings are as fundamentally relational as they are individual.  

The problem with this idea is that human beings are as fundamentally relational as they are individual—as thinkers as varied as Plato, Hegel, and anyone with common sense, have noted. There is no pre-social individual; there is at most an individual who is enmeshed deeply in social relations from conception—indeed, an individual who is able to recognize him or herself only through an encounter with the other. To badly paraphrase Aristotle, a human being without society is no human at all.

Thus while liberal ideas were able to achieve much good through liberating people from the oppressive elements of pre-liberal societies, the cure is now proving worse than the remnants of the disease. A society in which all must be referenced to the rights of utterly free individuals has necessarily become an anti-society. Webs of obligation and association, which we both desire and cannot avoid, are automatically suspect, containing within them the unacceptable threat of oppression. Instead of emerging from the state of nature, liberalism helps create it: individuals with warring interests struggle to ensure their “rights” are respected, the political order oscillating violently between acts of liberation and acts of control intended to counter the consequences of liberation.

At a philosophical level and as a diagnosis of the contemporary dilemma Deneen is, I think, fundamentally right. The consequences of privileging the individual over the social, of basing ethics on rights rather than obligations, are all around us, as politics devolves into a battle over whose rights to privilege and what form of individual human endeavor to endorse. The most glaring example is our collective march into the abyss of environmental collapse, each person far too worried about his or her own individual pursuits of economic “happiness” to stop and restrain themselves from a most ironic form of self-destruction.

If this is correct, if out of control liberalism is our pending dystopia—the initial point of fracture now located and outlined in chalk—the question of what to do next remains. Deneen here is deliberately vague. Rightly reticent to facilitate the development of a new all-encompassing ideological vision, he urges the cultivation instead of “post-liberal” practice. By this he means the development of purposefully non-liberal cultural patterns, the strengthening of familial and communal associations, the rejection of the consumerist “pursuit of happiness,” and the embrace of localism.

As a habitual reader of this website, I obviously find all of this extremely compelling (indeed: inspiring). His, I think, is the path forward. Yet, I must admit a certain discomfort with identifying as “post-liberal.” It’s no accident of course that Deneen uses “post” rather than “anti.” For those operating under the anti-liberal banner tend to be rather frightening to behold. Even the more “mild” varieties—the Southern Agrarians for example—carry a good bit of deeply problematic (in the Agrarian case, racist) baggage.

If liberalism is at root a system based upon a set of individual rights, and it is liberalism that is the problem, then whither those rights?

Indeed, as much as I fear the society liberalism and its hyper-individualist ethos might be creating, I’m more wary of what questioning that enshrined framework of rights might bring about. Deneen’s strategy is one of Burkean renovation rather than revolutionary reconstruction—and therefore on the right path. He certainly isn’t calling for the dismantling of individual rights (quite the contrary, his way forward depends on them). But, if liberalism is at root a system based upon a set of individual rights, and it is liberalism that is the problem, then whither those rights? Calls for a move “beyond” liberalism therefore fill me with fear. However well intentioned the initial critique may be, it offers numerous opportunities for bad actors to hijack it—as the Russian Revolution of February 1917 became the Bolshevik Revolution of October.

Reforming liberal society from within seems to me the more prudent path. But if so, where to begin? What is salvageable in the liberal project? Deneen’s history of liberalism doesn’t leave us with much. Liberalism’s flaw is foundational and thus incessantly damning. His blowtorch widely applied, we are left without any inspiring historical examples from the liberal tradition. He casts doubt not just on those moments of liberalism’s excess—such as the French Revolution. Even those historical developments that are usually seen as a triumph are left looking withered on the vine. Deneen acknowledges the historical gifts that liberalism has bestowed but leaves them all tarnished by his analysis.

Take the U.S. Constitution for example. In Deneen’s rendering, James Madison becomes not exactly a villain but something of a tragic hero. Deneen identifies Madison as a carrier of the fatal flaw, as expressed in Federalist 10, “the protection of [the diverse] faculties of men is the first object of government.” He argues that Madison’s constitutional order was meant to unleash the individual from the constraints of the local, to pit individual interests against each other in a multiparty balance of power while a special elite group of leaders emerged to guide the nation. These leaders would do so with the imprimatur of the “consent” of the governed, though those governed were to have very little say over what was done in their name.

This, however, is a bit of a caricature. Madison was no pure liberal. To begin with, by writing that government existed to protect the diverse faculties of men, Madison meant that government existed to preserve property not liberal “individualism” as we understand it today. Moreover, this conception of property was profoundly different from our own. As Gordon Wood has described it in his study Empire of Liberty, “most of the Revolutionary leaders thought of property in pre-modern terms … as rentier property … as a source of authority and independence … not a commodity.”

Thus by saying that the first purpose of government was to preserve differential allotments of property, Madison was arguing as much for the primary purpose of government being the preservation of the pre-liberal social order as he was aiming to protect the rights of individuals. This was not a liberal conception of government but a much older one drawn from English constitutional and common law traditions. Far from meaning to unleash the liberal individual, Madison intended the liberal structure of the U.S. Constitution to counter the individualist consequences of Revolutionary egalitarian rhetoric.

For the elite of the young United States, the 1780s was a period of profound crisis. The radical ideals of the Revolution had let loose waves of significant social change. Expanding suffrage and growing legislatures had brought all sorts of new, largely middle class (white male) Americans, into the halls of government. To the founders, like Madison, these new men were not suited for office, occupied as they were by providing a living for themselves. They lacked that classical form of property and therefore the “gentlemanly” leisure necessary to study the liberal arts and ensure their independence from corruption. Madison was deeply concerned by what he saw as the selfish interests of these new men. Wood again: “during the 1780’s [Madison] saw many of his and [Thomas] Jefferson’s plans for reform mangled by factional fighting and majoritarian confusion in the Virginia Assembly.” The national Constitution was meant to fight this. Madison wanted the national government to counteract local interests, not in order to unleash the individual, but rather to neutralize the already existing individual or factional interests he believed were threatening the social and political order at the state level.

Liberalism has always existed within other cultural frameworks.  

This highlights a significant issue with Deneen’s analysis: while it’s good political philosophy and contemporary commentary, I’m not sure it’s always good history. One must have sympathy for the scope of the book and the demands of publication, but the point remains. An accurate history matters because it reveals the framework in which we operate and provides the stock of examples on which we might draw and against which we might judge ourselves. Too many things are liberal in Deneen’s story and their differences are flattened because, in his model, all applications of liberalism are marked with its original sin and thus doomed to eventual failure. His critique of liberal political philosophy is correct, but few have tried to engineer the emergence of a purely liberal society (the Jacobins aside). Liberalism has always existed within other cultural frameworks. Deneen admits this but, in his analysis, liberalism parasitically relies on these external frameworks for life. It consumes them before consuming itself.

Are we sure this is the case—does liberalism necessarily have to infect and destroy the culture in which it’s embedded? Rather than sucking dry these other cultures, might it not be more accurate to see liberalism as having often existed in productive tension with them? Edmund Burke thought so (though he wouldn’t have used the term “liberal” in exactly the same way we are here). As Burke scholar Richard Bourke has described it in his Empire and Revolution, the British statesmen believed firmly in “extreme political liberty” and the maintenance of the existing social order. He did not, however, think either much good on its own: “by defending both these principles together, Burke was opposed to the exclusive endorsement of them separately.”

This is precisely where a more variegated and nuanced history of liberalism would come in handy. The differences between various liberal thinkers and, most importantly, practitioners, are much more significant than Why Liberalism Failed lets on. Few such practitioners intended for political liberalism to operate separate from a larger, supposedly ennobling culture, Madison and his fellow founders included. Nor were they always naïve enough to believe that the health of society could be maintained absent constant vigilance and careful calibration. They knew that liberal freedoms could become corrosive. As John Adams famously wrote to the Massachusetts Militia in 1798, “our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

I would suggest that the emergence of a liberal anti-culture—which is inarguably the case today—is thus not an inevitable outcome of incorporating liberal institutions into society but instead the consequence of historical contingency. Of choices made and not made, of the failure of subsequent generations of Americans, for example, to vigorously defend the Classical ethical systems which the American founding fathers believed were essential to the proper functioning of the political order they created.

This is not to suggest that the early Republic was some sort of paradise—it decidedly was not—but to highlight the dangers of collapsing all forms of liberalism into some unadulterated, ur-liberalism. This is not only inaccurate but impoverishing. Condemning every form of liberalism root and branch denies us access to an entire storehouse of valuable ideas. It undermines the framework behind some of our most cherished rights at a time when those who have long wished to take them away are reemerging from the ash heap of history. It looks at what may be the last thing holding our fractured age together and says, “that too will break.” Liberalism needs work to be sure. It may indeed be the worst way to organize society, but I still fear all the others.

1 COMMENT

  1. Very good essay, but I have one small caveat. The author writes, “Even the more ‘mild’ varieties—the Southern Agrarians for example—carry a good bit of deeply problematic (in the Agrarian case, racist) baggage.”

    Wendell Berry recently answered this in the introduction to his most recent collection of essays, The Art of Loading Brush. He writes that ” I’ll Take My Stand… certainly can be associated with racism and contains evidence of it, but it would be substantially the same book if those contaminants were removed. Its ‘Statement of Principles, to which I have given the most praise, contains nothing of racism.”

    Thus if racism is “baggage” in Southern Agrarianism it’s baggage that can be fairly easily jettisoned, as can be seen in Berry’s own work.

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