Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Why Liberalism Failed (5)

Below I'm presenting excerpts from the conclusion to Patrick Deneen's Why Liberalism Failed. The previous excerpts were from the preface to the paperback edition. That preface was written in 2019 and it was intended to clarify matters that may have been somewhat unclear as well as to respond to the reaction to the book when it was first published. The Conclusion is from the original edition, written in 2018. Having argued that liberalism has failed due to its own inner contradictions, Deneen speculates regarding what type of regime might replace our current failing liberal regime. I highly recommend this brief video of Piers Morgan, whose diagnosis of the current state of the liberal regime closely tracks some of Deneen's analysis: Piers Morgan: "The Left Have Become Unbearable".

Liberty after Liberalism

Liberalism has failed because liberalism has succeeded. As it becomes fully itself, it generates endemic pathologies more rapidly and pervasively than it is able to produce Band-aids and veils to cover them. The result is the systemic rolling blackouts in electoral politics, governance, and economics, the loss of confidence and even belief in the legitimacy among the citizenry, that accumulate not as separable and discrete problems to be solved within the liberal frame but as deeply interconnected crises of legitimacy and a portent of liberalism's end times. 
The "Nobel Lie" of liberalism is shattering because it continues to be believed and defended by those who benefit from it, while it is increasingly seen as a lie, and not an especially noble one, by the new servant class that liberalism has produced. Discontent is growing among those who are told by their leaders that [liberalism's] policies will benefit them [the servant class], even as liberalism remains an article of ardent faith among those who ought to be best positioned to comprehend its true nature. But liberalism's apologists regard pervasive discontent, political dysfunction, economic inequality, civic disconnection, and populist rejection as accidental problems disconnected from systemic causes, because their self-deception is generated by enormous reservoirs of self-interest in the maintenance of the present system. This divide will only widen, the crises will become more pronounced, the political duct tape and economic spray paint will increasingly fail to keep the house standing. The end of liberalism is in sight. 
This denouement might take one of two forms. In the first instance, one can envision the perpetuation of a political system called "liberalism" that, becoming fully itself, operates in forms opposite to its purported claims about liberty, equality, justice, and opportunity. Contemporary liberalism will increasingly resort to imposing the liberal order by fiat--especially in the form of the administrative state run by a small minority who increasingly disdain democracy. End runs around democratic and populist discontent have become the norm, and backstopping the liberal order is the ever more visible power of a massive "deep state," with extensive powers of surveillance, legal mandate, police power, and administrative control. These methods will continue to be deployed despite liberalism's claim to rest on consent and popular support. Such a conclusion is paradoxical, not unlike Tocqueville's conclusion in Democracy in America, in which he envisions democracy culminating in a new form of despotism. 

This certainly describes exactly what we see happening in the Russia Hoax--the disdain of the Comeys, Brennans, and their ilk for the rest of the country, while they continue to spout bilge that they think the "deplorables" will perceive as high minded. But of course the Russia Hoax is simply the most egregious example of many of the way the American Republic has been transformed into a "soft" despotism," as envisioned by Tocqville.

But the instabilities that surely would accompany this outcome suggest a second possible denouement--the end of liberalism and its replacement by another regime. Most people envisioning such scenarios rightly warn of the likely viciousness of any successor regime, and close to hand are the examples of the Weimar Republic and the rise of fascism, and Russia's brief flirtation with liberalism before the imposition of communism. While these brutal and failed examples suggest that such possibilities are unlikely to generate widespread enthusiasm even in a postliberal age, some form of populist nationalist authoritarianism or military autocracy seems altogether plausible as an answer to the anger and fear of a postliberal democracy. 
... Yet the failure of liberalism itself invites this outcome, even as the unwillingness of liberalism's defenders to perceive their own complicity in fostering widespread discontent among their fellow citizens only makes such a lamentable outcome more likely. Liberalism's defenders today regard their discontented countrymen as backward and recidivist, often attributing to them the most vicious motivations: racism, narrow sectarianism, or bigotry, depending on the issue at hand. ... No serious effort to conceive a humane postliberal alternative is likely to emerge from the defenders of a declining regime.

Once again, we see the evidence for this everywhere. We saw it in Obama's reference to "bitter clingers," the cynical attempts to divide the populace by using crude race baiting techniques; we saw it in Hillary's tone deaf deprecation of the "deplorables"; and now we see it in the NYT's decision to play the racist card 24/7 until the 2020 election--in an oh-so highbrow way, of course.  My own experience of speaking with people of this sort is in complete accord with Deneen's analysis--most of them are unwilling to "perceive their own complicity in fostering widespread discontent among their fellow citizens."


  1. I've bought Deneen's book thanks to your posts on it. I had previously read a review--I don't recall where--that treated it less generously, so I originally passed on it.

    In a similar vein, a book others might enjoy, is Ryszard Legutko's "The Demon in Democracy." Written pre-Trump, it foretells some of the broad underlying themes and attitudes Trump leveraged. Its main argument is the overlapping merger between liberalism in the West and communism. There are differences, yes, but the similarities are leading to the same place. I actually read it twice so as to better absorb the argument.

    1. I have Legutko's book in my books-to-read stack. In terms of philosophical antecedents, Legutko is quite right that communism and liberalism derive from the same source.